(Paper presented at the Keele Counselling Conference on 7/5/16)
When the opportunity to present at the conference came up, my first thought was: what’s the point? Why bother? I’ve got nothing important to say and even if I did it wouldn’t change anything anyway.
For anyone who knows me and knows how passionate I am about counselling and about education and research, that would’ve come as something of a shock; I’m normally the first to jump at opportunities like this. And it shocked me as well. The more I dwelt on this shock and the negativity, the more I thought that I did have something I wanted to say: not to talk about my research, but to tell the story of doing the research – the story which ended with me feeling so negative and dis-empowered.
We’ll hear a lot of positive and inspirational things this weekend about creative research. My paper is going to sound very negative next to them, but I hope this negativity can serve a useful purpose. I hope that my story of isolation will resonate with others’ experiences, and highlight the danger that faces us when we, as practitioners, are separated from the knowledge creators. I also hope that the journey I’ve been on may gesture towards a different way to think about ourselves as professionals, and about what knowledge in counselling could mean.
Research, Knowledge and Fear
I’m going to start, then, with a very brief description of my Masters dissertation. My plan was to investigate my own identity as a white, heterosexual, middle-class man; to look at the privileges that this conferred and how I often failed to acknowledge or engage with these. I wanted to challenge my insider safety and security by involving others in the process – others who didn’t belong to the groups I belong to – others who could challenge and change me.
Fearing that any established method I chose would merely repeat and reinforce my privilege, I adopted an anti-methodological methodology. I hoped to ‘meet’ my participants, in Buber’s sense, with as few technical or power-full impediments as possible. So I sought dialogue – meeting – with Others, with no pre-set method at all except to engage and to keep on engaging. I had no criteria guiding the research except those which emerged in discussion and debate. I was the author and took responsibility for the work, but was not in complete control at any stage.
What did this look like in practical terms? Well, it meant holding an initial dialogue between myself and my participants which focused on identity (but was otherwise unstructured). Following this, both my participants and I would reflect on the transcript of that discussion and engage in further dialogue about these reflections, both via email and in person. This process would continue, spiralling hermeneutically towards a better, richer understanding of our encounters. The work would evolve in dialogue with my participants, rather than being an analysis of this dialogue.
So what happened? Well, it was a complex study, but one of the main threads that runs through the dissertation – and that I want to focus on today – is the way in which, after each dialogue, I would go away and try to understand what had occurred, and then share this attempt at understanding. And each time I shared this attempt at understanding, I would be told in response: “You’re trying to make this too clean, Phil – too final – too sensible”. I was told: “You’re trying to understand it – to stand underneath it and justify and encompass it all”. And further, I was told that this movement was symptomatic of a privilege which seeks to encompass and erase difference.
As the piece developed, then, my participants were telling me that my goal of telling a clear story, or even of just plain understanding at all were themselves goals of a privilege which whitewashed and denied difference. I was invited instead to sit with the discord, to hear rather than understand; to allow the project to outgrow me.
I found this very difficult, and I shared these difficulties with my participants in a way which itself felt exposing and uncomfortable. But ultimately it was these moral and political criteria which led the writing of the dissertation. Ultimately I decided, in dialogue with my participants, that the moral and political imperative called upon me to include all of our voices, often uncommented upon, instead of rigorous analysis and clear explanation. I spent the majority of my allotted 20,000 words on these dialogues, and trusted to my reader that what mattered would come through in the writing.
The work was hugely worthwhile for me and, I hope, for my participants, and I don’t regret it. The learning I took away was of a moral, emotional and political nature, centring on what it means to be defined by others, and how unethical it can be to resist this. I have kept it with me and continue to learn from it.But the practical consequence of going off-piste in my research was that I got a much worse mark than I would have liked. This was the right mark, but the effect it had on me, which I hadn’t foreseen, was to feel excluded from academia.
And not only to feel excluded, but also, in a small way, to be excluded, as, without a distinction next to my name, I’m less likely to get funding for a PhD and, as I’m a counsellor, there’s certainly no way I can self-fund.
Now, this was my choice – I chose to write in a way which I knew risked getting a bad mark. But the feeling of being excluded from the bodies which create the knowledge that we as counsellors apply, set me in mind of other instances of alienation, and I realised that it’s something of a theme in my professional life.
Being a member of the BACP, for example, is for me an experience of having a distant, paternalistic instructor tell me what not to do. I feel I have very little voice in the body which represents me, and feel that it only represents the bland, quiet, profitable aspects of me.*
And this in turn set me in mind of another instance of isolation from my previous life as a teacher. Some years ago, while doing an MA in early years education, I conducted a piece of action research with my staff team. This research sought to raise our awareness of our interactions with young children and to reflect on these: to learn from the children and to learn how to learn from them. This was a fundamentally trusting, human, and relational piece of work, in which we all had a voice. And it paid great dividends, opening up new avenues of practical knowledge which would not have been accessible without this relational method. It was fundamentally lived, practical knowledge – it’s not the sort of thing that an outsider observing could have discovered. But not only did this knowledge not spread beyond us, it was soon overturned and negated by more official forms of knowledge: by initiatives backed up by extremely dubious but extremely evidence-focused research.
We had been encouraged to find our own practical knowledge, but were effectively told soon afterwards: “This is local, specific and not really proper knowledge. Our large scale studies are more important – they are more true”. In the years which followed this I found myself becoming more and more isolated from the sources of knowledge-creation in education, and, at the same time (because I was required to see and interact with my students in terms of this evidence-based ‘knowledge’), more and more isolated from the children in front of me. Eventually, the gap became too large and, reluctantly, I left.
The Risk to Counselling
Is this really a risk though? Do my own personal experiences really illustrate something larger? I don’t think counselling will ever end up where teaching has. For one thing counselling is much more private an enterprise, and a less political issue than teaching, and it has, at present, no statutory authorities. But I do think it’s worth considering what can happen when those practising a profession are completely isolated from the means of knowledge-creation, as is the case with teachers now. And there are signs that counselling is moving in that direction. For example, how is knowledge created in counselling? Who gets to say what counts and what doesn’t?
Well, to briefly divert into a little Foucault, there are many different discourses through which knowledge is used and defined in counselling. I want to focus on one particular discourse which is steadily gaining power and which I believe, if left un-engaged with, will widen the gap between the creators of knowledge and those who apply it. The discourse is that of evidence-based practice.
This is a discourse which holds that the only real knowledge is knowledge gained through randomised-controlled-trials and objective studies by neutral outsiders. It is a discourse which holds that knowledge is objective and measurable, and all that is not objective or measurable is not knowledge. This discourse has gained its power both through practical means such as the provision of employment to those who agree to it, and by broader cultural means.
On a practical level, for example, if you hope to work for the NHS – the largest employer in the UK – there’s a very good chance that you will have to accept the medical model and drop those elements of your personal beliefs which conflict with this. You will have to accept that you cannot learn from the patient, for example, and that your practice is defined by the research of others – others who measure a relationship as a series of inputs and outputs. You will have to accept that your clients are essentially lacking, and that you will fill in their gaps by operating a manual. If you don’t (or at least if you don’t pretend to), you won’t get work. Them’s the rules.
This practical power is hugely powerful, but there’s a larger societal story to tell too, about the systematic stripping-away of ideology and morality from public discourse. This de-politicising and de-moralising of public debate has left a vacuum into which the evidence-based-practitioners and their friends, the economists, have stepped. Economic impact is now the sole bottom line of almost all public debate, and so, increasingly, the knowledge that counts is knowledge which is measurable and has economic impacts. Just think of Lanyard. Knowledge of a more personal, local kind, does not count, because it cannot be measured.
This means that if you want to be engaged in creating knowledge; knowledge that matters, knowledge that has an impact, then it must be of this sort. Any other just holds no sway. Them’s the rules.
This is particularly pernicious a state of affairs in counselling, where so much of what we do – as is the case in teaching and in creative research – is about remaining open to and meeting the Other. The best of teaching and counselling and research is about a disciplined openness, in which we learn in relationship and from the relationship not about the relationship. But if you’re practising EBP you cannot be open to the client (or the child, or your subject-matter), because they are not in the evidence. And that means that you cannot learn from the client. And that means you let the client down.
As counsellors we can often end up feeling powerless in the face of the ‘evidence-based practice’ discourse: we often feel that the ‘knowledge’ created within this discourse is wrong but feel we cannot say so – we just don’t have the words.
Giving us the Words – Elliot Eisner and the Connoisseur
I want to end today by suggesting a framework within which we can start to stand up for ourselves more vocally and explicitly – a framework which will give us the words. And to do so I’m going to use a concept from the work of an educationalist called Elliot Eisner.
Instead of the technical or industrial approach to knowledge which we see in evidence-based practice, Eisner suggested that teachers may benefit from adopting a more artistic model of knowledge. Looking to the world of art, Eisner found that although there was no overall regulator dictating standards or evaluative criteria, there were, nevertheless, clear criteria and standards which were constantly being negotiated, developed and refined between artists and critics and audiences. And further, he found that these criteria provided enough structure for people to practice well and to improve their practice.
Within the world of art Eisner found explicit, measurable and objective criteria such as technical skill and draughtsmanship (much as we’d find in EBP), alongside criteria relating to established canons of practice and theory (and so an understanding of what knowledge has been passed down to us – much as we’d find in the ‘schools’ or ‘tribes’ approach to counselling), alongside amorphous but no less important criteria such as, for example, emotional impact and moral worth. Eisner called the person who engages with these different criteria and weighs them up against each other a connoisseur. These connoisseurs have a felt sense honed over years of direct, lived experience and dialogue, and use this engage in a community of rigorous discussion about truth, value and meaning in art. They have a shared sense of purpose, direction and practice, but within that disagree reasonably and rigorously about how to achieve those ends.
Eisner hoped to import that culture of critique and connoisseurship into education. He loathed the curricula which sought to control every aspect of a child’s experience in school. But he also distrusted the wooliness of unreflective teachers who were often just going along with tradition because it’s what we do. Education, as he saw it, was a messy human process, with aspects of culture and morality and subjective taste, as well as aspects of efficacy and science and objective research. He wanted teachers to be open to the cultural and individual, as well as the universal and rational. He wanted them to develop their own language to weigh up these different ways of judging and make informed, situated choices between them. Eisner knew that the only way that the art/science of teaching could be protected from industrialised knowledge-creation was to encourage teachers to take an active role in their own community of connoisseurs; for each and every one of them to become a researcher who could stand up for their own lived knowledge, and engage with each others’.
How does this help us in counselling? Well the best counselling is messy and human. It is a moral and ethical as well as a technical process. As counsellors we are artists but we are not just artists. We are concerned with our impact in the world and with doing counselling well. How these different aspects – these different criteria – are to be balanced is an unsolvable conundrum. But what Eisner’s notion of the connoisseur highlights is that this unsolvable balancing act is one which we must continue to debate instead of ceding, frightened, to one particular discourse. It gives us confidence, I hope, to engage in this debate – to say, unashamedly: “My standard of judging is potentially more important than yours”. To say “I understand things from the inside which you, on the outside, cannot grasp, and vice versa”. To face up to the EBP and engage with it rather than rejecting it out-of-hand, or slavishly submitting to it. To place the lived relationship and therefore the client at the centre of our work and to learn from these, arguing once again in our clients’ best interests.
The notion of the community of connoisseurs gives us a language through which to place practical knowledge on a par with technical knowledge, and to take back some control of our work. It gives us confidence, I hope, to acknowledge the compromised, messy nature of relationship, and to reject the totalising, manualising impulses of industrial knowledge where they are inappropriate.
My Journey to Keele
Which brings me to the closing remarks of my paper, and the question: how do we get to a position in which our voices as connoisseurs can be heard?
The battle has been lost – for the moment – in teaching. I left the profession because I felt I was not enough, and that there were too few people to fight with, and too few words with which to argue. But we are fortunate that we already, in counselling, share aspects of connoisseurship in, for example, the supervisory relationship, and in conferences like this, today. This conference is an opportunity for connoisseurship; for us to find our voices. We won’t find our voices by looking above for someone to give them us: we need to look towards each other, and stand up for – and to – each other. But the point I want to leave you with is that we have to look outwards as well as inwards – to those who disagree as well as to those who agree. If our situated, creative local knowledge matters we need to be saying that to others as well as to each other. We need to stand up together and say: “This matters. It is important. You need to listen”.
Part of my journey has been to expose myself here today and to say: my research was worthwhile because, in that instance, the moral and political were worth more than the analytic and judgemental. The lived-experience was more important than the mark scheme. Part of my own journey has also been to switch from the academic route into blogging as an avenue for reaching more people outside of the bubble of those who agree with me: turning out as well as in. Which seems like a very good place to stop and turn outwards to you for questions…
* After I presented this paper, I attended a keynote presentation by Andrew Reeves (of BACP chair fame), and my views have somewhat changed. An article based on this paper will briefly explore this in an upcoming issue of Therapy Today.