Nested Scholarship: Towards A Scholarship of Transgression, Anger and Hope


Some background to this blog

This is a slightly reworked version of the keynote I presented on 24 August 2016 at the Vaal University of Technology, South Africa.

This keynote flowed from a range of influences such as conversations with Maha Bali  and Kate Bowles, my recent Fellowship awarded by the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute (#digped), University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg (VA), my engagement with Chris Gilliard during the Lab and the wonderful privilege I had to attend the #action track, facilitated by Audrey Watters. I was also deeply touched by my visit to the Martin Luther King Jnr Memorial in Washington DC.

This keynote was an attempt to make sense and map my sensemaking of these disparate influences in the specific context of South African higher education. Since 2015 and continuing into 2016, the South African higher education landscape was brought to standstill as students protested against a range of issues such as the cost of and access to higher education, issues surrounding the language of tuition and the need to decolonise curricula.  See, for example this selection of articles.

In this keynote I reflection on scholarship as nested praxis – nested at the intersections of my own history as scholar and trends and discourses in the broader higher education sector. Tessmer and Richey (1997) proposed that we are “condemned to context” (p. 88) and we ignore the variety of factors indigenous to a particular context at our own peril.  The notion of scholarship as nested foregrounds “[c]ontext is everything” (Jonassen, 1993, in Tessmer & Richey, 1997, p. 86).


What does a scholarship of teaching and learning mean in an age where higher education is confronted with the impact of funding constraints and the increasing demands to do more with less? How does our obsession with quantifying and measuring everything, impact on our understanding of what a scholarship of teaching and learning can be?

How do we engage and reflect on the scholarship of teaching and learning while acknowledging that even participating in the debate is entangled in issues surrounding gender, race, white privilege, class, socio-economic income, the widening inequalities and the continuing legacies of colonialism and apartheid?

How do I as a white 57-year old gay white male participate in these discourses? What happens when I quote the work of bell hooks, Audre Laudre and Paulo Freire and when I propose a scholarship of teaching and learning as nested in transgressions, anger and hope? How do I participate, or should I rather remain silent because my participation is inevitably coloured and tainted by my race, gender, white privilege and language (de Oliveira Andreotti, Stein, Ahenakew & Hunt, 2015; Tuck & Yang, 2012; Tuck & Gaztambide-Fernández, 2013)?

What does it mean to think about the scholarship of teaching and learning “living in a democracy that is at the same time violently, pathologically unequal” (Naidoo, 2016)?

What does it mean to reflect on the scholarship of teaching when many educators have given up hope that there is a way out of the constant quantification of learning and teaching, where their teaching and students’ learning are reported as numbers on spread sheets?

For many academics and researchers, the constant and all-consuming race to produce outputs and achieve predetermined outcomes makes us lose our ability to make choices, to decide how we want our bodies to be used. We forget our tastes and preferences. Life turns to beige (Bowles, 2014).   Death by a thousand paper cuts.

And finally, how does one reflect on the scholarship of teaching and learning when our norms and standards for determining and valuing the scholarship of teaching and learning still resemble a pre-Internet age? What does the scholarship of teaching and learning look like when the boundaries between online and offline, between our personal and professional lives and identities have become perforated, where office hours are disappearing and where we are online 24/7?


Delivering a keynote is an immense, fragile responsibility. Immense because of the centrality of the keynote in the sequence of events. Fragile because I don’t have the answers. What I do know is that I have a feeling that we cannnot discuss the scholarship of teaching and learning as if our campuses did not burn, as if there were no student protests…

In this keynote I would like to slow down the discourses on what a scholarship of teaching and learning entails. I want to make sense of what reflective scholarship means amidt student anger and protest. In this keynote I would there like us to consider a scholarship of teaching and learning as nested praxis – as nested in transgression, anger and hope.

Towards a Nested Scholarship

Nested is an interesting word calling forth images of structures made or used by birds to provide a safe environment for their eggs and their young. When something is nesting or nested it also refers to those living creatures or beings who occupy a particular dwelling or place. To therefore talk about ‘nested’ scholarship calls attention to the context or contexts in which a scholarship of teaching and learning takes place. The notion of scholarship as ‘nested’ acknowledges and accounts for its embeddedness in disparate discourses and practices but also acknowledges and accounts for the fact that scholarship engages and occupies a particular space as an active, deliberate act.

To reflect on scholarship as ‘nested’ therefore has two purposes. We need firstly consider how the shape of our environment impacts on the purpose, scope, value and measurement of what counts as scholarship. Nested scholarship, however, also refers to the way we occupy, how we (re)claim this space we call our home. In considering how we occupy these spaces of scholarship, I would make the claim for a nested scholarship of transgression, anger and hope.

Considering some of the discourses, the actors and claims

There is a long and rich history of scholarship of teaching and learning – ranging from defining scholarship to redefining its scope, its content and its use. Even before the seminal work by Boyer (1990) was written, there were attempts to define the parameters and content of the educator as a professional (e.g. Bucher & Strauss, 1961; Eraut, 1988). Since Boyer’s work (1990) Scholarship reconsidered: priorities of the professoriate, there were several attempts to define, redefine and describe the multiple roles of the professional educator (e.g. Arreola, Theall & Aleamoni, 2003; Braxton, 2005).

In 1990 Boyer petitioned for a redress or a “balancing” of teaching as equally necessary and worthy of reward and reflection then research. He defined scholarship as

…not an esoteric appendage; it is at the heart of what the profession is all about. All faculty, throughout their careers, should themselves, remain students. As scholars they must continue to learn and be seriously and continuously engaged in the expanding intellectual world (1990, p. 36).

Boyer explored four notions of scholarship, namely the scholarship of teaching, application, integration and discovery. These four dimensions of scholarship are distinct but interrelated.

At this stage allow me to refer to five issues or factors that shape reflective scholarly teaching:

  1. Disciplinary research is still considered as the gateway to tenure, fame and employment. Despite the rhetoric that values inter-disciplinarity and reflective teaching practice, what counts for tenure and promotion in the academe is a proven track record in research in a specific discipline.
  2. We cannot and should also not forget our obsession with the quantification of research and our commitment, whether as institution or as individual, with rankings and citations. This mad race to the top possibly results in the shallowing of research and institutional discourses informing teaching and learning.
  3. Teaching and research are often seen as incompatible and many staff would prefer not to have both responsibilities. While such a proposal may be worthwhile to consider, the essence of such a proposal ignores the crucial role administrative and professional staff play in reframing and redefining a scholarship of teaching and learning.
  4. And then there is the issue of the definition of what is considered to be scholarship/research. For example, departmental reports are not considered as Research (with a capital ‘R’), and these reports often die as they are rehearsed in various committee meetings and gather dust in a portable hard drive in someone’s drawer.
  5. And lastly, let us not forget the impact of the increasing outsourcing of teaching to adjunct faculty and temporary appointments.

While I will address these factors, I think there is a more important aspect to consider – the impact of context.

Scholarship at the Intersection of Anger and Hope

Nested scholarship means to face the reality of the deep seated anger that students express, anger towards a democracy that has let them down, anger at the continued dominance of white male voices and militarised responses to students’ anger. In the words of Fikeni (2016) a nested scholarship should play

…a critical role in transforming poverty from banality and into a political category that refuses the deliberate erasure of historicity implied in that post-1994 rainbowism that glibly suggests that this country is ‘alive with possibilities.’ ‘Alive with possibilities’ for whom?

Nested scholarship needs to account for the reality that

The very physical structures such as statues and buildings form part of the institutional violence and are centered in the critique of the university as a space involved in the subjectification and disciplining of black bodies according to colonial ideals, which insist on assimilating the black subject into the simulcra of the dominant social order as its perpetual, problematic ‘other’ (Fikeni, 2016).

Nested scholarship means to engage with those who resist our ideas, our syllabi, and our carefully planned schedules of submission dates and who express anger against being assimilated into the accepted discourses of what it means to be black, female, lesbian, queer, and the ‘other’.

Nested scholarship means to listen to students who say ‘Fuck white people’ to articulate how they feel as they grapple to find a vocabulary to describe black suffering and the continued exclusion from curricula, access to opportunities and the constant blamed for being under-prepared and, somehow, deficient. Fikeni (2016) states that statements such as ‘Fuck white people’ articulates the feeling that  “white people have screwed us to a point that is beyond discourse, that’s beyond political language, that’s beyond respectful, understandable, engagement; so fuck you.”


We no longer want empty reconciliation without justice, we demand justice and the expression of our anger is not a mere baseless prejudice. There is no vocabulary to explain black pain or the fact that white people never had to give anything for all the evils they committed (Nhlapo, 2016).

Only when we allow people to name their pain, their disillusionment, their anger, is their space for liberation, for hope (hooks, 1994). Paulo Freire (1994) states that we “certainly cannot ignore hopelessness as a concrete entity, nor turn a blind eye to the historical, economic, and social reasons that explain hopelessness” (p. 2). Freire (1994) states that “without hope there is little that we can do” (p. 3). And hope is born from rage and love (p. 4).

So how does a nested scholarship engage with the anger, the disillusionment, with the claims of ‘fuck whites’?  Freire (1994) writes that events or artefacts such as art or statues “are always wrapped in thick wrappers. They have been touched by manifold whys. Only some of these are close enough to the event or the creation to be visible as whys” (p. 10).  We therefore need to engage and take the time to unwrap the many layers and to understand the processes guiding expressions of anger, to find processes to realise our hope. We need to become conscious, engage with the lived experiences of students, before we attempt to understand, judge, assimilate their voices in a keynote or a Powerpoint.

Audrey Lorde (1981) in reflecting how (black) women respond to racism states that she “cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivialises all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action.”

There is a real danger that in considering the scope, intersections and boundaries of a scholarship of teaching and learning, we choose to ignore those who are in our classes, those who have entrusted us with their dreams, with their memories and with their hopes. There is a real danger that we escape into discourses surrounding the first year experience, lecturers’ perceptions of students, considerations of blended and online learning and the literacies our students and staff need and ignore the deep fissures and fault-lines.

I have a suspicion that the recent student protests are evidence that the “tectonic plates” (Booth, 1991) of the continued legacy of colonialism and apartheid are shifting. Booth (1991) writes “The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive” (p. 260).

In listening to the voices and the anger, we need to ask new questions, reconsider our assumptions and beliefs about the curriculum, about community engagement, about teaching and research. The tectonic plates are shifting. How can the scholarship of teaching and learning not be affected?

I would therefore like to think of a scholarship of teaching and learning as a scholarship of transgression


bell hooks (1994) in her book Teaching to transgress urges educators and all of us

to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions.  I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions – a movement against and beyond boundaries. It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom (hooks, 1994, p. 12).

I don’t think the scholarship of teaching and learning in the current higher education landscape in South Africa will find an adequate response to students’ anger and disillusionment if we are not willing and allowed to transgress, to disrupt the boundaries of what is acceptable, to formulate new questions, to move against and beyond boundaries. Have we become so complacent that we think we can survive without listening to the movement of the tectonic plates? Have we forgotten what it means to consider the “classroom [as] the most radical space of possibility in the academy”(hooks, 1994, p.12)? Have we become so disinterested and bored as we dance to the tune of the quantification of teaching and learning that we cannot consider teaching “as an act of resistance” (hooks, 1994, p. 10)?

hooks (1994) acknowledges that

The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labour for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom (p. 207)

 We simply cannot be seduced into the comfortable space of thinking of the scholarship of teaching and learning as being primarily about the tension between teaching and research. We have to stop. We have to slow down the debates surrounding teaching and learning and listen to the tectonic plates shifting. A scholarship of transgression will require new rules for engaging with new questions, new rules for validating knowledge claims, a new dispensation on who is allowed to speak.

We have to think of the scholarship of teaching and learning as nested praxis.

Considering Nested Scholarship: Some Pointers

I close this keynote with exploring the possibilities in seeing the scholarship of teaching and learning as nested in

  1. the lives of our students;
  2. our attempts to address the legacy of colonialism and apartheid
  3. disciplinary and inter-disciplinary contexts
  4. the discourses on ‘who is in the trenches’
  5. the intersections of research, community engagement, and teaching; and
  6. digital networked worlds

 Nested in the Lives of our Students

A nested approach the scholarship of teaching and learning has to consider the aspirations and needs of our students. It is easy to pay lip service to our institutions being student-centred while ignoring the life-worlds, aspirations and needs of our students. Last year the higher education sector was brutally awakened when students on our campuses halted teaching.  Students demanded to be taken seriously, to be heard. Students demanded to find themselves, their lives and histories in our curricula, and in the languages of tuition.

Students claim that we have become anesthetised to think about, in the words of Naidoo (2016) of “the possibility of another kind of society, another kind of future… We have to recognise that the ruling elite, and in that I include the management of our universities, have lost the capacity to dream us, to move us, into a new time” (Naidoo, 2016). Our students don’t trust us anymore with defining a future in which they can believe in.

Nested in our Attempts to Address the Legacy of Colonialism and Apartheid

Recently, at the 15th Ruth First lecture, Leigh-Ann Naidoo (2016) made the claim that we need

to kill the fallacies of the present: to disavow, no, to annihilate the fantasy of the rainbow, the non-racial, the Commission [referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission),… even of liberation. The second task is to arrest the present. To stop it. To not allow it to continue to get away with itself for one more single moment. And when the status quo of the present is shut down the third task … to open the door into another time… There has to be a measure of shut down in whatever form, for the future to be called (emphasis added).

When we consider the different nuances or elements of a scholarship of teaching and learning- the scholarship of teaching, application, integration and discovery – how do we interrogate and question the fallacies of the dominant discourses of neoliberalism that have become the prescribed mantra in higher education? How do we stop and arrest the present? How do we open the door, create spaces to consider different ways of being, different epistemologies and different futures?

 Nested in (Inter)Disciplinary Contexts

Though I would be the first one to claim that research encompasses much more than disciplinary research, we cannot and should not disavow the reality that a proven research record in a particular discipline is, in all probability, (whether we agree with it or not), the gateway for career progression in higher education. Despite our claims that we value teaching as equal to research, our performance management systems and most probably the very core of higher education is based on the premise that disciplinary research somehow is more important than other forms of scholarship.

I would, however, propose that to only value a scholarship in discovery as pertaining to specific disciplines is a huge impoverishment of the value of a reflective scholarship of teaching, application and engagement.

But all of this is not new. We’ve been here before and we will most probably have the same conversations five years from now. In order to move our efforts forward to broaden the scholarship of discovery to also include a critical engagement with the issues inherent in the teaching of particular disciplines.

 Nested in the institutional discourses of ‘who are in the trenches”…

I started at the University of South Africa as a student advisor and tutor in 1995. I was introduced to the narrative that somehow administrative staff were the pen-pushers, second-class citizens in the galaxy of academics as moons, bright shining stars, supernovas and suns. No matter of the fact that many of us had qualifications equivalent to those in this galaxy, we were still second-class. We were admin. Nothing more, but also nothing less.  In our dealings with the different issues students brought to our attention, we were often on the receiving end of derision and disbelief. We were confronted with claims from faculty that “Students should just read the rules. Students should just study harder. Students should just make a plan to get hold of the latest edition of the prescribed book authored, often than not, by the academics. We advised students.” We were confronted with claims from students that (some) faculty just don’t care, just don’t understand, and who are not open to (re)negotiate the terms and conditions of a learning experience. We had access to their choices and often helped them to make more informed choices. But somehow the reports we wrote, and statistical analyses we produced, were not really regarded as scholarship. These analyses were only reports of daily life in the trenches.

In 2002 I became an curriculum and learning developer (or instructional designer) and had to negotiate a space with academics where my insights in design and in student learning were often regarded as interesting, but not of consequence to how lecturers designed learning experiences.  In the seven years I was a learning developer, I saw myself as fulfilling the role of an interlocutor, of translating not only the needs and realities of students and everything I read in the field to discipline experts who often saw the design and production of learning experiences as an unnecessary evil, preventing them from doing disciplinary research. I however also met many educators who were not interested in a career as a researcher, but who were passionate and curious about the ways their students learned, their students’ life-worlds, and retention and pass rates. But somehow the reports we wrote, the evidence of careful decisions on what technologies to include and which ones to exclude were never regarded as research.  Again I found myself in the trenches – negotiating meaning and meaning-making, supporting academics to design more caring and ethical learning environments. It was during these years that I attempted writing my first scholarly articles. I learned how to play the game, how to use the redevelopment of learning experiences and curricula as legitimate foci for scholarly consideration. I read more than ever before. I promised myself that I will stake a claim in the world of academic publishing.

In 2014 I was fortunate to be appointed as a research professor with the sole task to publish or perish. As I soon discovered, it was a matter of publish and perish.  I suddenly found myself in what many consider to be the crème de la crème of academia – a research professorship. Again I found myself in the trenches – different and possibly deeper trenches.

I would often hear academics refer to themselves as being in the trenches, dealing with under-prepared students, a non-enabling institutional culture and of course, dealing with arrogant administrative, non-responsive and overpaid staff. I still remember the days when I was an administrative offer, of low rank, constantly negotiating my place in the galaxy of academic superstars.

One thing we can do to grow a scholarship of teaching, discovery, engagement and integration is to acknowledge that we are all in the trenches, possibly at different locations on a battlefield. It is also important to acknowledge that our students are not the enemy, but are also in the trenches as they negotiate unresponsive staff, epistemologies and ontologies that are far removed from their own, but somehow differently valued.

Imagine a world in which all of us can be allowed to make sense of our engagement and our wayfinding and share our sensemaking and wayfinding in safe and caring spaces. What can we do to tap into the rich experiences of those who do not have research as key performance area, not as objects for our research, but as equal partners?

Nested in the Intersections of Research, Community Engagement, and Teaching

A nested scholarship also acknowledges the links between and the intersections between Research (with a capital ‘R’), the communities as participants in our meaning making and wayfinding and our curricula, and not as research subjects. Higher education institutions and academics would often defend the fact that they have their ear to the ground and that we know the needs and challenges of the communities around us?

Engaging with this claim, I have the following question:

If we had our ear to the ground (as we claim to have) how come we did not see the frustration and anger of students simmering below the surface? If we were so in touch with the reality our communities face, why were we totally unprepared for the calls from students that we have lost all legitimacy in formulating futures that they can relate to? Were we so obsessed with chasing citations and increasing our gravitas and shine in the academic galaxy of stars and suns, that we shunned the experiences of those who had difficulty in looking at our galaxies as they were coping with curricula and management structures that were oblivious to their needs and their claims?

In the past we saw the communities surrounding higher education as providing the research subjects we were looking for to answer our research questions and needs. Is it not time that we take our cue from the communities we serve and ask them what are the questions they would like to see solved and negotiate a space for research at the nexus of teaching, research and community engagement?

In considering the role of higher education in an age of supercomplexity, Barnett (2000) proposes that the role of knowledge production in  higher education must change from “an endorsing machine to one that seeks to produce radically new frames of understanding would require considerable changes in the ways in which research is funded, evaluated and managed” (p. 417; emphasis added). In a world where higher education has long since ceased to be the only producer of knowledge and knowledge claims, our  role has changed to scrutinise these new knowledge claims and “lay bare their structure and to provide a more informed understanding of them” (p. 418). Barnett (2000) furthermore states: “If knowledges are proliferating, if any account of the world is contestable from all manner of directions, if our sense of who we are and our relationships to each other and to the world are insecure (as they all are), being overtakes knowledge as the key epistemological concept” (p. 418; emphasis added). The last role Barnett (2000) envisages for higher education in an age of supercomplexity is to enable individuals “to act purposively in an environment where all bets are off, where everything is uncertain and where everything is challengeable” (p. 419).

One possible way forward towards a nested approach to scholarship is to engage in scholarship at the intersections of co-formulating revolutionary accounts of a world, a world where the distinctions between theory and practice have become perforated and in cases obsolete as we grapple with global climate change, the vast and pathological inequalities and injustices in our society and a realisation that not one discipline has all the answers.

Nested in Digital Networked Worlds

As higher education increasingly move to embrace digital technologies and online learning, we also have to reconsider what scholarship looks like in an age where the boundaries between professional and personal identities and lives become pierced and possibly disappear. I do not, for one moment, want to disregard the reality that the dividends of the digital age are not evenly distributed and that many in the world and in South Africa are still excluded from having affordable, sustainable and secure access to the Internet (World Bank, 2016). Having said that, Castells (2009) warns that while not everyone is connected, everyone is affected. While we need to be distrustful of claims that access to technology will solve all of the world’s problems (Morozov, 2011), we have to consider what it means to be human in a digital age (Siemens, 2016). How do we think about being  human in a digital age when the main narrative of being connected is formulated and narrated by white men and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley (Watters, 2015)? How does the fact that our lives are increasingly surveiled and our choices determined by algorithms impact on the issues of justice and equality in the communities we serve (Pasquale, 2015; Smith, 2016)?

What does nested scholarship look like when the devices we wear, and the social media we use, result in us being online (and tracked) even when we are offline?

In an “onlife manifesto” Floridi states that “ICTs are not mere tools but rather environmental forces that are increasingly affecting (1) our self-conception (who we are); (2) our mutual interactions (how we socialise); (3) our conception of reality (our metaphysics); and (4) our interactions with reality (our agency)” (p. 2).  He proposes that it is increasingly impossible to imagine our lives without and/or separate from these technologies and this “huge ethical, legal, and political significance” and heralds four major transformations, such as

(a) the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality;

(b) the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature;

(c) the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and

(d) the shift from the primacy of stand-alone things, properties, and binary relations, to the primacy of interactions, processes and networks (Floridi, 2015, p. 2).

 What are the implications for a scholarship of teaching and learning? As we engage with the potential to collect, analyse and use the digital lives of our students and staff, we may be tempted to disregard the ethical implications of such surveillance…


In the beginning I acknowledged that delivering a keynote is an immense, fragile responsibility. In this keynote I attempted to provide a personal account of the factors that impact on the scholarship of teaching and learning. I briefly engaged with some of the historical and current voices in framing and un-framing the scholarship of teaching and learning before mapping my view of a nested scholarship – nested in transgression, anger and hope.

Martin Luther King

I would like to end with the words of Martin Luther King Jnr

True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice (1958)

 I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits (1964)

A scholarship of teaching and learning as nested praxis opens up the possibility to have the audacity to hope.


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About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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4 Responses to Nested Scholarship: Towards A Scholarship of Transgression, Anger and Hope

  1. runtezza says:

    Inspiring — thank you for this great read! Terry O’Sullivan, OU Business School

  2. Pingback: A blog on (not) blogging | opendistanceteachingandlearning

  3. Great read, Paul. Haven’t seen Siemens’ article. Looking forward to your 2017 publication!

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