My talk at the Watson conference

As an outsider to Composition and Rhetoric as a discipline, I was really honoured – and also slightly unnerved – to be invited to the 20th biennial Watson Conference at the University of Louisville. Would I be the green jello at the lunchtime buffet of talks? The cold stuffing? The watery collard greens? Anyway, this is the talk.



Disciplinarity, professionalization and academic capitalism:

Knowing work in Composition and Teacher Education

Over the last few years, I’ve moved around quite a bit for work. I’ve been employed mainly in England, where my home is, but also in Norway and, intermittently, the United States. And I have experienced rapid movement in the last week in that I have travelled to Louisville from England. This movement is often a privilege, I am privileged, despite the lack of peanuts now on transatlantic flights.


As the mobilities scholars whose work has been informing this conference have suggested[1], movement by itself doesn’t necessarily mean very much. Places and spaces can look, sound and even smell very alike – mountains, trees, water, damp grass, small dots that are people travelling in boats on the water, and so on. But the recognizable features of these spaces (the things that can help us to enter a landscape and begin to find our way around it) can have very different meanings. And what lies underneath these potentially orienting features – in terms of geological layers built up over time – is also different; different kinds of historical sedimentation that has responded to different kinds of environmental pressures.

So, since Monday, I have been moving around Louisville, talking to colleagues and students here at the university in the Composition and Rhetoric programme and the College of Education. And here I am at the Watson Conference, an important, biennial event in the calendar of Composition and Rhetoric as a discipline.

 But I don’t work in Composition and Rhetoric. I don’t (any longer) work in the field of English Education. For the last ten years, really, I have been working within the discipline of Education, specializing in teacher development and the pedagogies of teacher education and professional development. I am an outsider in your landscape and so, even if this conference didn’t have a mobilities theme, I would still be confronted by the challenge of being mobile in any meaningful sense and by the question of whether I can mobilise my knowledge and produce something that can travel and make sense across boundaries, national, cultural and disciplinary. I am sure you will tell me afterwards whether I have been mobile. And if it turns out my work doesn’t travel, I will of course blame Bruce Horner.


For the last few years, I’ve been addressing some of the questions driving the field of teacher education (not always ones we would have chosen) using the tools of cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT). I have become particularly interested in the concepts of academic discipline and profession insofar as they have become subject to challenges, such as those presented by neoliberalism and neoliberal ways of organizing public services such as education (sometimes known as New Public Management) as well as other challenges posed by potentially participatory new technologies, questions of public accountability and transparency, and changing class relations in society.[2]

And as I am interested in things that are, in large part still, activities wholly or partly located in universities, I’ve been studying the work of people who labour under conditions that have become known as academic capitalism[3] – which is to say, a set of exchange relations in which some people who do some kinds of work get to trade their labour for academic promotion, fellowships, grants and prizes (apparently thriving) whereas there are others who do the kind of work (usually very, very necessary work) who find it difficult if not impossible to exchange their labour for very much at all, people who (echoing the lofty word professoriate) have recently become known as the precariat[4] because their security and continuity of employment are so fragile and precarious.


So I have been focusing particularly – and perhaps unusually in the CHAT club – on the bottom line of the infamous triangle (the rules, the community and the division of labour), the bit that can often get left out, which is really concerned with the socio-historic organization of work – and in my case, it has been the work of university-based teacher educators. I’ve been particularly interested in the concept of division of labour, which is a key Marxian idea that addresses questions such as who gets to do what work and why? And with what consequences? And therefore also with the Marxian dynamic of proletarianisation[5], which represents the other side of capital accumulation, where people become wage labour with limited agency and built-in redundancy rather thriving in the market-place, achieving endowed professorships and prizes and so on.

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I believe it was this work – recently published in a book with my colleague Jane McNicholl, Transforming Teacher Education[6] – that led Bruce to invite me to speak at the Watson Conference this year on the basis of being an outsider to the discipline of Composition. But I believe my research could speak to the conference theme of mobilities and mobilization in the following ways:

  1. My research has focused on the class mobility of teacher educators within the classed system of Education as a discipline under conditions of academic capitalism; why is it that the necessary and gendered work of the day-to-day preparation of school teachers makes it so difficult to accumulate academic capital?

  2. Relatedly, I’ve been studying the mobility and mobilization (a word which raises some questions for me) of the knowledge produced by educational research. Questions such as ‘what counts as research knowledge? Who says so? And how is it produced?” Questions which, I have been arguing, have consequences for teaching – school teaching – as a profession as well as for workers in the academic discipline of Education.

So I suppose that in my work I am interested in the mobility of discipline and profession as concepts in relation to the mobility (or otherwise) of the concept of academic work and what this means for people, both inside the academy and outside. For me, profession always has a strong meaning in connection to school teachers as well as a meaning in connection to the community of university-based teacher educators and as I talk you have probably already noticed that (in fact, I hope you have!) and will do in what follows too. The mobility of my arguments for the discipline of Composition is a question for you to consider.

The literature in both our disciplines draws attention to their comparatively low status within academic life and the professionalization (or otherwise) of the students we work with. Disciplinarity and professionalization are concerned with questions of social status as well as knowledge, identity and agency. Composition, according to Bruce Horner in his recent book[7], has low status not because of any innate intellectual deficiency but because it reveals something that other disciplines need hidden – that knowledge is only realized in historically-evolving social practices located in specific material conditions. It reveals the work involved (it draws back the curtain) rather than occluding it. It exists as a university discipline because it is evolving out of pedagogical work in the university classroom but in order to discipline itself and jostle for prestige with, I don’t know, scholars of eighteenth century garden poetry, it somehow has to deny this work.


Composition therefore lives a primary contradiction, urged from within and from outside its academic community to commodify knowledge in recognizably exchangeable ways, in the service of the disciplinary project of professionalization and within the exchange relations of academic capitalism but, predominantly, uneasy at denying the labour necessary for its use-value (predominantly but not exclusively, as some of our excellent keynotes have shown us).

At the same time, though, as I have said, the concepts of discipline and profession are increasingly contested and re-made in relation to a range of factors such as new technologies, changing social class relations, the expansion of higher education in some countries, the contraction in others, and new configurations of scientific research work and innovation such as those labeled as Mode 2 knowledge production[8] or design thinking[9]. In particular, challenges to the mission and funding of public higher education have suggested new imperatives for all knowledge-curating and knowledge-creating academic disciplines in which Composition like another supposedly low-status discipline Teacher Education, might be well positioned to exploit.

Now I want to turn to where, in our research, Jane McNicholl and I have ended up in our thinking about discipline and profession. But remember that we are talking specifically about teacher education and that, in terms of our intellectual traditions, our ‘moorings’ are European educational research.

From the perspective of management studies and organizational science, Paul Adler at the University of Southern California has developed an interesting ideal-type of profession and professional work as a collaborative community[10]. Having evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of hierarchies, the market, and community as organizing principles for professional work, and based on empirical work in the manufacturing sector, he proposes an outward-facing, democratically-accountable, collegial-trust model of a profession as, in his words, a knowledge-creating collaborative community. Adler has been working in business management but is a sociologist by training. His ideas have been useful to Jane and I in thinking where to go next in new designs for the work of teacher education both in terms of the importance of working jointly with school teachers to realise the potential of collaborative community as an ideal in the teaching profession but also as an ideal in the university-based profession of teacher educators. Adler’s ideal-type is useful because it recognizes the exclusive and excluding dimensions of the word community when used in connection with professions; it recognizes the short-termism and tendency towards individual capitalization of the market (rather than the collective development of human capabilities using shared wealth); and also the barriers to agency put in place by hierarchies of strong vertical accountability.


I have found Adler’s ideas useful in thinking through the kind of teaching profession we want to prepare teachers for as well as the development of a different culture in higher education that creates these opportunities for those who are preparing them.

When we think about the discipline of Education and the specific field of teacher education, we have also of course necessarily been thinking about the university – and particularly the public university – and the challenges it has also been subject to over the last couple of decades, seemingly from all sides. Funding cuts, the casualisation of the workforce (on short-term contracts), increasing bureaucratization, the intensification of conditions described as academic capitalism. And, in terms of some of the consequences, increasing distance (intellectually and economically) between the life of the classroom and the research that gets funded; the perceived irrelevance of much of what academic researchers produce to real-world problems. To put it another way, it is possible to win awards for one’s research on social justice without having made any discernible difference to the material conditions for non-dominant and marginalized people who have been the subject of your research.

Another Californian sociologist, Michael Burawoy, has done some interesting thinking about what it would mean to transform the knowledge producing and mobilizing functions of the public university in response to the multiple challenges now facing public higher education in the United States and the UK[11]. And in 2013, I thought through what this kind of transformative work might mean for teacher education as a knowledge-producing and knowledge-mobilising discipline in the public university. You will see that this work is structured around two broad types of knowledge (instrumental and reflexive) and two broad categories of audience (academic and extra-academic) leading to a quadrant of professional, critical, policy and public knowledge. Burawoy does not suggest that every academic worker must be equally adept across all rhetorical functions and audiences and modes of knowledge production: he (and I, in terms of teacher education) are talking about fields or disciplines. But the main implications of this thinking for me are two-fold: first, this typology captures something of the public and democratizing functions of the public university; second, rather than making a few adjustments to the status quo so that a few more teachers of teachers (or teachers of Composition) get to create and mobilise and exchange research knowledge, it potentially changes the terms of the exchange and presents a challenge to those who might have thrived under conditions of academic capitalism. It’s not, I don’t think, what could be regarded as a patronizing gesture to the low status disciplines but an institutional challenge to those who have appeared to thrive.



Mode 2 knowledge production, a term derived from the work of Michael Gibbons, Helga Nowotny[12] and colleagues, is just one model of how the mobility of agents, concepts, knowledges and locations can come together in new configurations of academic research work, work that has public and collective as well as private and individual benefit. There are other paradigms of inter- or trans-disciplinary and participatory research work in which knowledge is created and mobilized under different conditions. Developmental work research or design thinking are two other examples. I’m not arguing that these new models offer simple solutions, of course; there are still tensions. Knowledge, creativity and innovation still tend to be inflected through economic discourses but it is also possible for them to be inflected through discourses of public value, contribution to society and the development of human capabilities.

I want to end by dwelling for a moment on one of the words in the conference title and also in the title of Jane’s and my book: transform. We have heard this word a lot these last few days, sometimes in connection with transfer, sometimes in connection with the concept of remediation. The meaning of transform, for me, goes beyond that of movement and beyond that of making sense in another context (a process that some refer to as translation). Transform, for me, means changing the terms on which a message is understood, changing the terms of the meaning itself and not falling into any traps set by the previous speaker, writer or user/shaper of the artifact. In our work in teacher education, we have illustrated our position like this – neither ‘reform’ (which carries with it the neoliberal way of organizing the activity of teacher education) nor ‘defend’ (which accepts the status quo as the best we can achieve) but transform (change the very conditions under which the activity has meaning). I would be arguing for this more expansive understanding of transformation in our conversations about mobility and arguing for there being qualitatively different processes involved in transfer, translation and transformation that are consequential for teacher education as well as for Composition.


[1] For example: Urry, John (2000) Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities for the Twenty-first Century, London: Routledge ; Sheller, Mimi & Urry, John (2006) The new mobilities paradigm, Environment and Planning A. 38 (2): 207–226.

[2] Ellis, V. (2013) ‘Teacher Education in the Public University: The Challenge of Democratising Knowledge Production’, in Wells, G. & Edwards, A. eds. Higher Education: A cultural historical approach to learning and teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Ellis, V. (2012) ‘Living with ghosts: “Disciplines”, envy and the future of teacher education’, Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 19,3: 155-166.

[3] Slaughter, S. & Rhoades, G. (2004). Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, State and Higher Education. Baltimore, Md: The Johns Hopkins University Press; Slaughter, S. & Leslie, L. L. (1997). Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies, and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore, Md: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

[4] Standing, G. (2014) The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, New York: Bloomsbury.

[5] For an older discussion of the process of proletarianisation in relation to school teaching as a profession, see Lawn, M. & Ozga, J. (1988). The educational worker: a reassessment of teachers. In J. Ozga (Ed.) School Work. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

[6] Ellis, V. & McNicholl, J. (2015) Transforming Teacher Education: Reconfiguring the Academic Work, London & New York: Bloomsbury.

[7] Horner, B. (2016) Rewriting Composition: Terms of Exchange, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

[8] Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schawrtzman, S., Scott, P. & Trow, M. (1994). The New Production of Knowledge. The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage.

[9] For an application of design thinking as a mode of enquiry (developed originally in Business Schools) in school education (K-12) see

[10] Adler, P.S., Kwon, S.-W., Heckscher, C. (2008). Professional Work: The Emergence of Collaborative Community. Organization Science 19(2), 359 – 376; Adler, P.S. & Heckscher, C. (2006). Towards Collaborative Community. In C. Heckscher & P.S. Adler (Eds.), The Firm as a Collaborative Community: Reconstructing Trust in the Knowledge Economy (pp. 11 – 105). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[11] Burawoy, M. (2011). Redefining the Public University: Global and National Contexts. In J. Holmwood, J. (Ed.). A Manifesto for the Public University (pp. 27 – 41). London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic

[12] See Gibbons et al (1994) above but also Nowotny, H., Scott, P. & Gibbons, M. (2003). ‘Mode 2’ Revisited: The New Production of Knowledge. Minerva, 41, 179 – 194.

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