Sexism in higher education research?

On a day when my twitter feed was full of sexism and scandal, I downloaded a new paper by Peter Kandlbinder, called Signature concepts of women researchers in higher education teaching and learning. It’s just been published in Studies in Higher Education, which is one of the gee whiz, gold star, highly ranked higher education journals.

Apart from the fact that the title reminded me of signature dishes of famous chefs, the paper was both useful and shocking. Useful because it draws attention to the contribution of four female researchers in higher education teaching and learning: Sheila Slaughter, Carolin Kreber, Angela Brew and Sarah Delamont. The signature concepts of these researchers are academic capitalism (Slaughter), scholarship of teaching (Kreber), teaching-research nexus (Brew), and postgraduate supervision (Delamont). Kandlbinder also identifies the pathway that each researcher adopted which led them to becoming known for their signature concept: create a unifying concept (Slaughter), publish in multiple journals (Kreber), link two fields together (Brew), and provide advice for practitioners (Delamont). Kandlbinder also notes that each researcher began exploring their signature concept during their doctoral studies.

Now onto the shocking bit: Kandlbinder chose to include a couple of comments from anonymous reviewers, I think on his earlier paper on Signature concepts of key researchers in higher education teaching and learning. One of these reviewers said:

“…higher education [research] is…dominated by the names of ‘seven old men, mostly now retired, who are linked to old concepts, largely generated 30 to 40 years ago with little to recommend them since’.” (p3)

I’m shocked that Kandlbinder included this comment in his paper. While I respect that it is the perspective of the reviewer, and that it might be an opinion shared by others, I find the comment to be harsh and unhelpful.

I’m not saying that sexism in academia doesn’t exist – a recent thesiswhisperer post and associated comments talk about this, and the issue has been explored by many researchers such Joan Eveline in her book Ivory Basement Leadership. I’m saying that comments along the lines of ‘old men, old concepts’ don’t help anyone. Why devalue someone’s work because of their gender or age?

In the Acknowledgements section, Kandlbinder thanks the six (!) anonymous reviewers of, I assume, his paper Signature concepts of key researchers in higher education teaching and learning, which talked about the work of seven male researchers. He says that the reviewers encouraged him to go back at look at his data to find the contributions of female researchers. So that’s fantastic, good on those reviewers. But don’t diss the guys just because they are guys. I’m all for critiquing the concepts – and will do so in my next post on student approaches to learning.

4 thoughts on “Sexism in higher education research?

  1. Were the reviewers’ comments dissing the guys, or the composition (all guys)? Taking a compositional criticism as a personal attack is one of the ‘derailing’ tactics used against people who call for diversity in the composition of boards, student and employee intakes, etc. I hear your concern about the wording of ‘old men, old concepts’ — but academic culture does have an implicit fondness for ‘founding father’ narratives about field formation. The framing Kandlbinder chose, ‘signature concepts of key researchers’, inherently privileges concepts that were influential early on in that formation process — at a point in our social history when the intellectual contribution and authority of female researchers was not acknowledged. So as a bloke I am pretty relaxed about ‘dissing the guys’; it’s a corrective strategy, tongue in cheek.

    • Thank you both for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. There are certainly plenty of famous old / dead guys out there, but I think the situation in higher ed research has changed now, with many women contributing to the field. I wonder what would be some useful ways of exploring the formation of the field of higher ed research? I know that Kandlbinder collaborated on a book Making a place: An Oral History of Academic Development in Australia which might offer some different perspectives – haven’t had a chance to read it yet!

      (And sorry about my ‘gravatar’ pic, I can’t work out how to make it go the right way up. Am a complete wordpress newbie).

  2. badblood — just what I was thinking to say.
    But in addition to that: I use a slide in teaching titled ‘famous dead guys’ that introduces economic theory through Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Keynes and Milton Friedmann. I then use this a springboard into feminist critiques of their theories, and the idea of ‘economy’ as being just about production and not reproduction and subsistence work. This comes from the particular situations of men at the time, who in their gender-segregated worlds just didn’t think to include ‘women’s work’ in their theories. THIS is why we need women as well as men making theory. I think relying on seven old men and the ‘founding fathers’ type narrative is not a good strategy!

  3. Pingback: Diving under the surface | They call me Dr Bell

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