Refusal and Disowning Knowledge: Re-Thinking Disengagement in Higher Education

Amanda Fulford

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


    This paper opens with an overview of the dominant issue of ‘student engagement’ in contemporary universities. Often understood by academics as the degree of attention and curiosity that students show when they are learning, this paper focuses on its antithesis: the thorny issue of student ‘disengagement’. Disengagement tends to be seen in deficit terms, and as pathologised conduct in education. Examples of disengagement that universities highlight might include absence from formal lectures; lack of preparation for seminars and tutorials, or contribution to discussions and group activities. As failure of performance or an absence of will, student disengagement requires intervention by the university, and elimination. In a bold move, this paper asks whether students should be engaged in their university education, and whether there is merit in pursuing the educational value of dis-engagement. It seeks to find an original way in which student disengagement can be understood, arguing that this has important consequences for how to frame and handle this issue in contemporary Higher Education. In doing this, it draws on the writings of Stanley Cavell, on the philosophical appeal to what we say, our search for criteria, and also his discussion of acknowledgement and avoidance in his discussion of Shakespearian tragedy. It seeks to show what is at stake in our attunement with, and dissent from, criteria, and how such dissent can be educative. Dissent can also be thought of positively in terms of speaking for oneself. The paper illustrates this through a reading of ‘Stalla Dallas’, a film in the genre that Cavell identifies as the ‘Hollywood Melodramas of the Unknown Woman’. In the film, Stella’s aversion to, her disengagement from, her culture’s criteria, is not a passive withdrawal, not something to be overcome and put right. It is instead the finding of her voice, her education as a grownup. These ideas allow a re-thinking of engagement and disengagement in terms of the Cavellian themes of agreement in criteria, dissent, and the finding of voice. The paper concludes that disengagement, understood in Higher Education in terms of aversion, dissent and the refusal of voice, is not to be seen always as a lack of action (or of care about an issue), but rather the opposite: the active voicing of what we will, or will not, consent to in our education. The paper argues that the university must surely be the space for the fostering of such an attitude, where disengagement, seen as the expression of aversive thinking and the articulation of one’s voice - speaking for oneself - is valued and encouraged.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2016
    EventInternational network of philosophers of education: Bi-ennial conference - University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland
    Duration: 17 Aug 201620 Aug 2016

    Academic conference

    Academic conferenceInternational network of philosophers of education
    Abbreviated titleINPE
    Internet address


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