iv. The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity

Stephen J. Ball (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity, Journal of Education Policy, 18:2, 215-228, DOI: 10.1080/0268093022000043065

This article presents a critical take on performativity in light of the increased regulation and measurement of performance in Higher Education, borrowing the phrase ‘the terrors of performativity’ from Lyotard (1984).

I found the article useful in its reference to Foucauldian models of regulation (the Panopticon) as a means of describing the increased management and monitoring of teaching in HE. Within the regulatory environment, ‘teachers are represented and encouraged to think about themselves as individuals who calculate about themselves, “add value” to themselves, improve their productivity, strive for excellent and live an existence of calculation’ (217). In other words, lecturers become ‘enterprising subjects’ or ‘neoliberal professionals’ who are ‘subject to a myriad of judgements, measures, comparisons and targets’ (220). This involves a shift towards individualism and a shift away from solidarity (something also discussed in The Slow Professor). It also involves a shift away from one’s own beliefs and one’s authenticity (223).

‘Structural and individual schizophrenia’

The burden comes to fall on the private individual rather than the collective institution or society more generally. As such, responsibility is internalised by the individual, potentially leading to feelings of ‘self-doubt and personal anxiety’ ‘pride, guilt, shame and envy’ (221). They might also lead to self doubt whereby the source of one’s motivations become contradictory or unclear: ‘Are we doing this because it is important, because we believe in it, because it is worthwhile? Or is it being done ultimately because it will be measures or compared? It will make us look good!’ (220). The issue here is that teaching becomes less authentic and more about presenting the appropriate ‘spectacle’; it becomes an ‘”enacted fantasy” (Butler 1990), which is there simply to be seen and judged – a fabrication’ (222).This results in ‘inauthentic practice and relationships’ (222). Or as Ball polemically puts it ‘Authenticity is replaced entirely by plasticity’ (225).

Some optimism… 

However, another strand in Foucault’s thought is worth acknowledging: ‘technologies of the self’. This idea allows for more agency on the part of the individual than the disciplined or subjected self discussed by Ball, above. One can craft and manage the impressions one crates (224), which could lead to new teaching situations with students: a ‘postmodern’ approach to teaching. ‘Performativity is promiscuous’ which may not always be a bad thing (224). I found Ball’s article interesting in the way it theorises identity through the notion of different subject-positions: ‘There are ways of presenting oneself within particular registers of meaning’ (225). I hadn’t really reflected on the idea of shifting subject-position while teaching, but this was something that emerged in Tim’s observation of my one-to-one feedback tutorials. What would it mean to consciously shift subject-position in my interactions with students, rather than doing it intuitively or automatically? Would this enhance my teaching practice?

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