Modernising higher education: Q. D. Leavis and insider ethnography

TitleModernising higher education: Q. D. Leavis and insider ethnography
Publication TypeConference Proceedings
Year of Publication2017
AuthorsCranfield, S
Conference NameLeavis and the Confrontation with Modernity
Date Published05/2017
Conference LocationCentre for Modern Studies at the University of York

Q. D. Leavis’s pioneering doctoral research published as Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) committed her to a method of investigation which she famously described as ‘anthropological’. This anthropological approach or method informed much of her and F. R. Leavis’s’ subsequent literary and social criticism and that of the Scrutiny movement generally. In calling on anthropology to illuminate literary studies, Q.D.L. drew on an innovative, distinctly modern(ist) knowledge paradigm and she was among the first to apply its ethnographic procedures and tools to the analysis of higher educational contexts. Q.D.L.’s case studies of academic life and traditions, produced for Scrutiny in the 1930s and 1940s, originated in ad hoc book reviews but were evidently intended to form a synoptic socio-cultural survey. They set out to analyse the micro-processes and dynamics of career- and identity-formation in academic working contexts, focusing on representative figures in Cambridge and Oxford from the late Victorian period to the (then) present. Themes explored included feminism and higher education, the establishment of university education for women, academic journalism, and the founding of Anthropology and of English as disciplinary studies at Cambridge. Through telling ethnographic anecdotes, Q.D.L. created a series of parables intended to illustrate principles about the advancement and impediment of academic careers. By drawing on extant historical accounts of successful and stymied careers and on her personal experience of as a university teacher-researcher, Q.D.L. posited an intensive personal process of identity construction that likewise aimed to enhance understanding of the connections between the individual academic, social class, and associated rites of passage within the organisation, with its coded systems of reward and patronage. By bringing to light mundane, ignored and distorted aspects of academic life, Q.D.L. embodied the risks of insider organisational ethnography whereby, then as now, fierce resistance to open discussion of defensive organisational routines may be the norm.

She thus provides a still timely illustration of how the inquiring academic ethnographer’s own career path within the university can consequently be fraught with obstacles.

Author Biography

Steven Cranfield is a Senior Lecturer in Pedagogic Research in Higher Education at the University of Westminster. He is a contributing author to Enhancing Teaching Practice in Higher Education (Sage, 2016). Recent papers delivered on Leavis have explored the impact of WW1 military psychiatry on the founding of Cambridge English (University of Westminster, June 2016) and philosophical aspects of Leavisian pedagogy (Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, October 2016). He is the author of F. R. Leavis: the Creative University (Springer, 2016). He was until recently Vice-Chair of the Leavis Society.

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