Going out on a roll: cake, conversation and critique

Rebecca Thomas - University of Hertfordshire



This article looks at arts education, considering hospitality, noticing, and meeting off-site or off-campus as ways of provoking dialogue and collaboration amongst staff. Setting up novel, sociable spaces and zones of hospitable exchange, both inside and outside the university, is presented as a way of encouraging critical and introspective discussion of teaching strategies. Some examples of these approaches are presented and critiqued.


This article considers ideas about, as well as the actual practice of, staff engagement in the School of Creative Arts. By ‘staff engagement’ I mean both how staff are involved in the development and transmission of ideas within teaching and also the ways in which individual tutors interact with their teaching colleagues and with students. As Learning and Teaching Coordinator within the School, one of the key issues I have to attend to is the rich diversity of staff spread throughout the School’s dozen or so programmes. I am therefore involved in two of the Learning and Teaching Team’s most prominent current concerns: the so-called ‘signature pedagogies’ (the discipline-specific interests and techniques of individual courses) and what might be termed cross-school interests or themes, practices or forms of behaviour common to all programmes taught within the School. There are also two other important issues the School is currently engaged in: student induction or ‘transition’, and inclusivity, and these are also matters I need colleagues to prioritise. These different interests may to some degree appear contradictory or counter-productive – for example, signature pedagogies are those aspects of a discipline that determine or constitute its particularity, what it in effect does not share with other disciplines or courses; not only the specific content under consideration but also the distinct physical spaces used such as a design studio or a workshop dedicated to a small range of skills within, say, a three-dimensional area or a course teaching editing skills. As Lee Shulman remarks:

A signature pedagogy has three dimensions….[a] surface structure, which consists of concrete, operational acts of teaching and learning, of showing and demonstrating…[it] also has a deep structure, a set of assumptions about how…to impart a certain body of knowledge…[and an] implicit structure, a moral dimension...

(Shulman, 2005:55)

In contrast to this systemic coherence, and at the same time, my post requires that I work with about a hundred staff across a dozen courses, so the more general matter of what we all do, what is common across the school no matter what one is teaching also has to be borne in mind. For a survey of this material, please see our own Learning and Teaching website at Reframing Spaces. Text and a film showcasing an exhibition of materials created by academic staff in the School of Creative Arts as part of a learning and teaching initiative featured in Volume 2, Issue 1 of LINK.

Part of my job is to find ways in which to help staff break out from the bureaucratic constraints of the academic context to allow a kind of reinvigoration to take place. In recent years I have been involved with a number of projects designed to create new contexts for discussion in relation to academic life, notably the ‘Food 4 Thought’ group initiated by Professor Joy Jarvis (School of Education) and, also with Joy, a series of ‘Going Out’ events, many of which involved picnics or other forms of eating out. These were based on the belief that much can be gained by providing a novel or unusual context in which staff can contribute their own ideas to the broader discussion about teaching. Sharing ideas can greatly expand possibilities and bring substantial benefits, both to the staff themselves and to the students they teach. Why should we need to leave the designated space of the University in order, paradoxically, to produce and develop University projects and assessment procedures? Couldn’t such discussions take place inside the University itself?  Well of course they already do, but changing the context in which such discussions are held can profoundly alter the nature of the exchange itself, whilst providing food and perhaps access to an unusual venue can help staff to feel valued on a personal level rather than being simply treated as part of the furniture or a ‘cog in the machine’. A further important reason why such ‘out of School’ activities are increasing in relevance is the marketisation of the University and the related transformation of the institution into one based upon profit and ‘productivity’.  This too can make an individual feel marginalised and undervalued. As Joy Jarvis has recently suggested, ‘Education at all levels now sits within a neoliberal context, with marketisation as a key element’. (Jarvis, 2015:2)  Steven Ball (2004) similarly observed that:

privatisation is not simply a technical change in the management of the delivery of educational services – it involves changes in the meaning and experience of education, what it means to be a teacher and a learner…this…is a process of social transformation…[it is]…insidious work that is being done…by privatisation and commodification…We need to move beyond the tyrannies of improvement, efficiency and standards, to recover a language of and for education articulated in terms of ethics, moral obligations and values.

(Ball, 2004:16)

Marketisation brings with it a kind of uniformity, the institution putting itself, its profits and belief systems first. The focus is upon the market and on employability; these things taking precedence over education for its own sake. With the market being constantly pushed as the most important arena in which students must succeed, little space is left within and around the curriculum for a more open, creative, approach by both staff and students alike.

One method, then, of countering this increasingly corporate mode of education is to bring staff together outside the university, so that, even if meeting to converse about academic issues, a fresh perspective is gained. Going outside provides staff with a less formal, less ‘policed’ zone of discussion, and with the time to think things through whilst away from the pressure of fixed procedures and ‘instant’ results. Holding picnics or, more recently, ‘Cake Conversations’, may seem an avoidance of work but it is, rather, a way of re-instilling interest in the serious activity of teaching, allowing us to step back from the constraints of academia and look at things in a new light. A more playful, creative approach is used rather than a tired, dull and arguably unproductive one.

We might equate what I am here calling playfulness or creativity with staff being in a more empowered position with respect to how their teaching is carried out. This tendency for academic staff to take control for the formation and development of their own intellectual activities within the institution is discussed at some length by Peter Felten et al, in Transformative Conversations (2013). This book looks at what the authors call ‘Formation Mentoring Communities’, small groups of academics meeting on a regular basis to enact change on a small scale within the University, but with a view, in the long term, to effecting change at a much more radical and far-reaching level. The authors write that:

These groups are based on the assumption that lasting change does not always come from the top down or the outside in; sometimes the most meaningful change comes from the bottom up and inside out. In social movements, like those for racial and gender equality in the United States, activists developed power sources that were not embedded in formal organizational structures. Only after building capacity and momentum among like-minded individuals did they attempt to reform social frameworks.


In their article on ‘Relational leadership’ Cunliffe and Eriksen (2011) propose that what they call ‘relational dialogue…can reveal new possibilities for morally-responsible leadership.’ Relational leadership is a complex set of issues and actions connected to the notion of ‘relational ontology’. About this term they remark that:

…it causes us to radically rethink our notions of reality and who I am in the world, because it suggests the origin of our experience is intersubjective rather than individual and cognitive. Thus, organizations are not understood as structures and systems but communities of people and conversations…a relational leader sees people not as objects to be manipulated but as human beings-in-relation with themselves.


This resonates with a notion in management studies that conversational exchanges between individuals are prioritised over top-down control structures. It is this ‘conversational’, less authoritarian approach that I am trying to encourage. Cunliffe and Eriksen (2011) develop their own theory of relational leadership through employing the work of the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. In particular they utilise his concept of ‘dialogism’ as a way of questioning the authority of conventional top-down management. They contend that all leaders hold meetings - formal and impromptu - but not all see meetings as spaces in which meanings and actions are worked out between people in everyday ‘back and forth’ dialogue. Bakhtin’s work emphasises the importance of these issues through his differentiation of what he terms monologic and dialogic forms of exchange. Leadership models are mainly grounded in monologism, based, that is, on a single individual who is generally unresponsive to how his/her voice is being received. Bakhtin regards monological discourse as oppressive and suggests that it cancels out diverse meanings, silencing and marginalizing other voices.

Bakhtin’s work demonstrates the presence of a much more open, conversation-based model of exchange, one arguably more productive than the ‘heroic’ leadership models so aptly criticised by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze: ‘Heroic leadership’, they observe,

rests on the illusion that someone can be in control. Yet we live in a world of complex systems whose very existence means they are inherently uncontrollable…No one is in charge!


A further means of establishing a space that is relatively free of institutional control is when staff work together on a group project that is not determined by the parameters of managerial expectations. Last year at the University of Hertfordshire staff were invited to lunch in a Fine Art studio space in order to brainstorm around the notion of a collective, staff-led project entitled Creating a Collaborative Text, and this theme of working together on a language-based project has been built upon by two further day-long events, also focusing around writing as an almost physical, material form. These activities were in part instigated in response to the staff’s own stated interest in developing a means of self (but also group) expression in which language is explored, integrated and critically discussed. This way of working embodies what Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) have described as ‘communities of practice’, comprising a set of individuals who embark on knowledge-creation through a social practice of learning from each other in a spontaneous and natural way, without hierarchical division. The open approach used in the Collaborative Text also parallels that described by Bakhtin (1984) in his influential theory of the polyphonic novel, as described in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. In this work Bakhtin singles out the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky as books in which the various viewpoints supplied by the many characters Dostoevsky presents lead to a complex range of conflicting positions. This multitude or polyphony of voices is, Bakhtin suggests, echoed in actual social relations, the implication being that any given individual is himself or herself constituted by a multitude of conflicting voices. The collaborative text being worked on by art and design staff is deliberately unresolved (and perhaps unresolvable), and this lack of finality or definite resolution is regarded as a good thing. Bakhtin’s dialogical model operates in acute contrast to the top-down, ‘monological’ managerial structure and is, in his view, a more democratic form of exchange than management as conventionally defined.

That the staff are organising their own discussion and practical groups within the University is, in sum, an important means of warding off the too-powerful advance of corporate ideas within higher education. Drawing on Bakhtin’s dialogical, polyphonic positioning so as to produce a less top-down model of exchange is an important, indeed necessary antidote to the narrow paradigm of managerial monologism. But we might, at the same time, be careful that we are not merely using such admittedly engaging theories to falsely bolster what could in fact be routine – but committed – conversation. Bakhtin’s ideas may seem to involve theorising the obvious and the commonplace but their importance is that they draw attention to the participatory nature of subjectivity, and imply that a more egalitarian organisation is in fact a more efficient one as well.

The questioning of routine, of received ideas and fixed ways of acting and thinking is addressed in Maxine Greene’s (1977) ‘Toward Wide-Awakeness: An Argument for the Arts and Humanities in Education’. Greene recognises, following Soren Kierkegaard, that it may be necessary to make things more difficult for people if one wishes to disrupt routine in a productive and ultimately beneficial manner:

To make things harder for people meant awakening them to their freedom. It meant communicating to them in such a way that they would become aware of their ‘personal mode of existence,’ their responsibility as individuals in a changing world.

(Greene 1977:120)

It may be, at least at first, difficult to break away from what has become standard and established, but the implication of Greene’s advocacy of making things harder is that this leads to a position of introspection in which one’s ‘real’ interests come to the fore, and through which we can work with others in a more personal and committed manner for the greater good of all concerned.

One of the main influences upon my approach to encouraging staff discussion was my being invited to the University’s ‘food4thought’ group, in which, incidentally, we discussed, amongst other texts, Greene’s article. The focus of the discussion group, as the title suggests, is on thought just as much as – indeed hopefully more than – food. The food aspect came into play because the meetings are held during the lunch hour when people from different academic disciplines are usually free to meet up. Centring meetings around food is not just a matter of practicality – food is brought to the meetings to be shared, not merely consumed by the individual who brought it along, and this convivial exchange is as important symbolically as it is functional. If one provides food to be shared, the title seems to suggest, then one is supplied with a ‘thinking space’. This approach was also used, again at the University of Hertfordshire, for the purpose of staff development.

Recently in the School of Creative Arts I have initiated, a series of ‘Cake Conversations’ aimed at getting staff to talk about teaching and learning in a relaxed atmosphere. This is achieved by providing at the meetings tea and cake, in an attempt to set up an amenable situation in which staff may talk about issues around their own disciplines, as well as ideas such as inclusivity, equality and diversity. Along with what I learned from attending food4thought, my approach here was heavily influenced by my research into the relatively new field of Host Leadership, in particular by the book Host: Six new Roles of engagement for teams, organisations, communities and movements, by Mckergow and Bailey (2014). When I suggested that we gathered for tea as a team I was in a sense already thinking along the following lines:

Hosting is intimately connected with space. If we invite people around for a party, it’s quite obvious that we then have to put some effort and attention into setting up the space accordingly...

(McKergow and Bailey, 2014:118)

The conversations take place in the University gallery, which in fact renders them a little like performances, as staged exchanges whose semi-public nature brings them to the attention of other staff in a productive way. Perhaps, then, the choice of the space itself is as important as the decision to supply the cake and tea. Particularity of context is certainly a key component of Host Leadership and of hospitality in general. As Henry Nouwen remarks (cited in McKergow and Bailey, 2014:31), ‘Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space… Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place’; ‘Hosts’, Nouwen continues, ‘are usually the ones who step forward with an idea…or a possibility. A host is always a context setter - providing an environment or space into which others will come.’

In ‘Praxis between the educational turn and the art school’, the Flag Collective (2014) discuss their politicised art practice, remarking on their use of cake as a metaphorical device and interventionist ’tool’ when providing free cake to the occupants of, for example, Chelsea School of Art as a way of triggering group discussions. They call this aspect of their work cake methodology, but point out that it ‘is an evolving set of methods’ (op cit: 61), not one solely reliant upon food, merely using the name for what is in fact a broader sweep of communicative strategies. In my own work, the use of cake carries strong symbolic implications as well as being an enjoyable thing in its own right.

In the University of Hertfordshire context too the cake is a means to an end, and not, of course, an end in itself. Eating together is important, as is the generosity and collaboration this implies, but perhaps the most productive aspect of supplying tea and cake to a group of already-engaged academics is in how this initiates conversation and helps to put participants at ease. The range of critical theorists and practitioners I have referred to above is fairly diverse, which may in itself seem a problem in that no single theoretical framework has been foregrounded. However, this range of references shows that my own practice draws on many different discourses and approaches. Looking at the span of these ideas has greatly helped me to contextualise and evaluate the limits of these interactions. However, it is clear that the formation of a coherent and committed group has enabled the production of actual tangible outcome, both in terms of verbal discussion and practical, published work.

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  • McKergow, M & Bailey, H (2014) Host Leadership: Six new roles of engagement for teams, organizations, communities, movements, London, Solutions Books.
  • Shulman, L (2005) ‘Signature Pedagogies in the Professions Daedalus’, On Professions & Professionals, 134(3), pp. 52-59
  • Wheatley, M and Frieze, D (2011)’ From Hero to Host’, Resurgence Magazine, 01/issue 264.

LINK 2016, vol. 2, issue 2 / Copyright 2016 University of Hertfordshire