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Critical Approaches to the Study of Higher Education: A Practical Introduction
Date Reviewed: July 15, 2016
The goal of the contributors to Critical Approaches to the Study of Higher Education is to apply critical theories to the study of higher education which, they insist, “has only begun to develop research using such essential approaches as critical feminist theories, critical race theories, critical discourse analysis, state theoretical approaches, or theories of power and marginalization.” Added to this genuine concern is the scarcity of published material “addressing key topics in higher education that are central to critical work elsewhere in the social sciences” (5). To meet this need, they marshal “critical theories, models, and research tools with a critical vision of the central challenges facing postsecondary researchers” hoping to shape future “scholars and scholarship in higher education” (5). They are convinced that these critical tools will “provide policymakers, the public, and institutional actors clear, reasonable, and authoritative information about higher education as it is experienced in a democracy” (1). The result is a fine compilation of well-written essays for teachers and researchers to adopt and exercise their critical edge with a view to innovating their teaching pedagogies and research.
The vision Mertínez-Ahlemán, Pusser, and Bensimon have is to ensure a sustained exercise of critical theory in the service of humanity, namely “for understanding politics and policy making in higher education” (5). They carry their readers through fifteen intriguing arguments critically testing theory against lived experiences filled with autobiographical elements that share the same thread – an abiding concern and determination to ensure that justice and equity are exercised in higher education. After all, critical theory came into being for this purpose as exemplified in feminist criticism, critical race theory, and other critical studies dealing with various dimensions of human life such as marginalization, economic disparity, and power differential. Simply stated, things are not the way they seem and something must be done even if it might be subversive.
This volume is, indeed, “long overdue” (5) as it provides salient insights on how to critically navigate the host of complex and challenging issues facing higher education. These dynamic tensions inherent in higher education include: areas of scholarship and lived experience, power differential, critical historiography, the making of globalization, policymaking, race, equity, opportunities, and institutional change, and so on. Quite frankly, this book is a gem with a delicate vision to motivate scholars and teachers alike to engage in the noble – yet difficult – task of effecting change, especially the kind of transformation that advocates justice and nurtures equity in higher education. Educators and researchers may strive to embody and diligently exercise its content in their classrooms or writing projects because of its timely and urgent call for action. In other words, justice and equity matter (311).
Experiential Education in the College Context: What it is, How it Works, and Why it Matters
Date Reviewed: March 4, 2016
Experiential Education in the College Context provides a useful introduction to both the theoretical underpinnings and the practical application of experiential education. Roberts, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs and Director of the Center for Integrated Learning at Earlham College, writes out of his experience as a faculty member, administrator, and philosopher of education. His volume is well-equipped as a guide for leaders in higher education interested in “harnessing the power of the live encounter between students and teachers” (xi).
Roberts divides the volume into two main sections, the first covering theoretical aspects of experiential education and the second exploring its practical facets. Each section is comprised of four chapters. Chapter one introduces the reader to the current educational landscape, noting that it is not merely a time of “disruption and destabilization,” but a time of “tremendous opportunity” (18). Chapter two defines experiential education, teasing out some of its many implications through three curriculum models. In chapter three, Roberts sorts experiential education models into “four core methodologies”: active learning, community-based learning, integrative learning, and problem and project-based learning (63). Chapter four identifies models such as the seat paradigm and the teacher as expert paradigm that educators should leave behind as they embrace an experiential approach. In chapters five through eight, Roberts shifts to the practical application of the theoretical principles discussed in the first half of the book. Chapter five considers design, chapter six facilitation, chapter seven assessment, and chapter eight the integration of experiential education in the college classroom and across the campus. Finally, the Afterword places experiential education in the wider world of the academy, and an Appendix offers a reference list for a variety of experiential education programs.
My one critique – and it is a small one – of Roberts’s work is that he quotes too many secondary scholars at length. Block quotes fill the pages and definitions abound. The volume would have been infinitely more accessible had he compiled the many definitions in a glossary in the back of the volume and confined his extensive dialogue with other scholars to the footnotes. Still, Roberts’s volume provides rich descriptions of the variety of practices that fit under the experiential education umbrella and offers useful examples for incorporating these models in the classroom. In short, the text offers a fine introductory resource.
Roberts wrote this book “for students who wish to learn more about the theoretical concepts behind the approach, for faculty who might be interested in what experiential education looks like in practice, and for administrators trying to respond programmatically and creatively to a rapidly changing landscape in higher education” (xi). While I am not convinced that many students will wade through its theoretical waters, the volume does address the needs of faculty and administrators investigating the possibilities that experiential education offers. I will carry Roberts’s image of “teachers as curators of experience” rather than “content providers” with me for a long time (81).
Digging Deeper Into Action Research: A Teacher Inquirer's Field Guide
Date Reviewed: December 2, 2014
Although targeted mainly to K-12 teachers, this short and easy to read book is helpful and could serve as a companion to professors of religious studies and theology who want to better their understanding of action research for improving classroom instruction. The ideas and principles presented in the book are not difficult to translate into higher education classroom contexts.
The book consists of six chapters and begins with defining teacher research and framing the research question. Dana provides five “wondering” questions for teachers to consider: (1) Is your wondering something you are passionate about? (2) Is your wondering focused on student learning? (3) Is your wondering a real question? (4) Is your wondering focused on your practice? and (5) Is your wondering phrased as a dichotomous (yes/no) question? The author then illustrates how to reframe these initial wonderings into pointed inquiry. She believes that good ideas and thought-provoking questions can only flourish through methodical inquiry. The book ends with two chapters that are concerned with ways to present inquiry-based research to colleagues and help them to improve their own teaching and research practices. In the chapters that fall between them, Dana discusses ways to fine-tune the research plan in chapter 3 and how to analyze data in chapter 4. Chapter 3 focuses on fine-tuning the research plan, and asks a number of pointed and useful questions that would be relevant for university, college, and seminary professors: (1) Does your data collection strategies align with your wondering and all other aspects of your inquiry plan? (2) Are you using multiple forms of data to gain insight into your wondering? (3) Does one of the forms of data you will collect include literature and/or have you already used literature to frame your wondering? (4) Is the design of your study experimental? In chapter 4, Dana distinguishes between formative and summative data analysis by giving real life vignettes from the field and also provides practical ways to avoid data analysis paralysis by way of self-guided worksheets. This might be helpful for those seeking to link teaching goals with outcomes and assessment strategies. Throughout the book, Dana inspires, reminds, and finally guides the reader through an action research process. As a result of going through this research process, readers are escorted through the process of improving their own pedagogical practices, “studying your practice empowers you to: engage learners, enable other professionals to learn from you, expand the knowledge base for teaching, express your individual identity as a teacher, and embrace all the rich complexity inherent in the act of teaching and learning” (80).
This book might initially overwhelm professors of religious studies and theology if they have not read in practitioner action research or have not used action research to improve their own pedagogical practices. However, for those with some experience using action research as a strategy for teaching, this book is a welcome resource to help improve teaching and learning practices in the classroom.