Dave Harris: READING GUIDE TO: Bourdieu, P, Passeron, J – C, and Saint Martin, M.  (1994) [1965] Academic Discourse, Cambridge: Polity

Bourdieu and Passeron:  Language and Relationship to Language in the Teaching Situation.

Academic language is about respectful distance rather than clear communication.  In practice, it is not very effective as communication: it is about student and teacher attitudes rather than resources [rather a positivist test here measuring the quantity of information transmitted].  The words used are technical, scholastic, and little understood, as student essays clearly show.  Student lack of understanding can produce a ‘rhetoric of despair’ (4), incantatory language, ‘”creolized” languages’ (5).  It is not simply a matter of jargon.  These features are even found in subjects like philosophy which claimed to use language precisely [you believe this?]. 

Academic language should really be seen as a code which students are presumed to know.  Subjects should be able to be taught clearly, but linguistic misunderstanding [from students] is often simply accepted.  Student communication also features pressures and fears, so just cutting the content of academic lectures will not solve the problem.

Academics themselves often disdain a focus on pedagogy, reflecting their own ‘cultural ethnocentrism’ (6).  Students’ poor performance often confirms academics’ professional pessimism.  Students are blamed for poor results, which somehow naturally arise.

Generally, the ‘neophyte and master will never have the same perception of the task’ (7).  Academics  often emphasize structure or form, while students prefer content, including emotional content, and expect academics  to be charismatic teachers or gurus.  Professors sometimes agree to provide this, and gain high status.  This was often attached to teachers of philosophy in the earlier stages of the subject's development, before it got too technical.

Students and professors are often complicit in misunderstanding.  The student wants some ideal world, but is unwilling to ‘give up his amateurism’ (8), while professors assert their right to demand student effort, even when they have ‘withheld from [students] the means of satisfying it’ (8).

It is assumed that educational language is second nature to all intelligent people, but in fact, it is really a matter of cultural privilege.  Language is a source of ‘a system of transposable mental dispositions’ (8), but these are unequally distant from the language of actual social classes.  Differences between the classes arise at the level of words used.  There is acute exclusion in the secondary school for the working classes, which means that widened participation will occur only if communication is rationalised first.  There is no generation gap.  Instead the social class of the student affects the gap with academic language, as well as matters of tastes and interests.  Linguistic practices are embedded in the very institutions of higher education—the physical layout of the lecture room, the practice of exams, the embodiment of the curriculum in physical spaces, platforms and so on.

Professorial questions to the audience are often mere rhetoric, and they tend to receive ‘ritual responses’ (11).  Students like distance too—it protects and then and keeps them independent.  Sometimes there is a sadistic pleasure in hope in the professor will make a mistake—‘a masked aggression’ (12).  Both students and professors have a vested interest in scholarly esteem, and this is still seen as an individual matter.

There is both serious misunderstanding and ‘a fiction that there is no misunderstanding’ (13).  Academic life goes on behind a mask, a nostalgia for Socratic dialogue.  This links the professorial lecture and the student essay.  Proper rational tests would soon dispel the myth of effective communication, however.  But this would make professors feel insecure, and students feel under surveillance.  Professors want to maintain their academic status, while students prefer a vague essay because it is a safe option.  The classic essay really requires nothing but the ‘manipulation of the finite bunch of semantic atoms, chains of mechanically linked words’ (14).  [Exactly what study skills recommends!]  Efforts are open to the judgement of examiners rather than to any tests based in harsh reality.  The classic professorial view is a ‘verdict of indulgence, tainted with scorn’ (15).

Yet it is important to keep setting traditional essays on traditional topics, because they help to judge people.  Suitable students soon learn to develop ‘an illusion of understanding’ (15).  Comprehension is assumed from familiarity, concepts are taken to lie behind ‘semantic impressions…  Technical terms and references…  [Which]…  Shoulder each other up’ (15).  The typical essay is ‘characterised by a discourse of an allusion and ellipsis’ (16).  Professors expect only that an essay suggests a discourse which they alone understand, and so they are prepared to ‘fill in the gaps’ (16).

Most lectures ‘address…  Fictive [human] subjects’ rather than real people, students ‘as [they] ought to be' (16).  The few gifted students provide support for these views.  Generally though, students are blamed for misunderstandings and are scapegoated.  However it is also necessary to excuse inaction, and students comply—for example they would not dare interrupt an incompetent monologue, showing ‘an obligatory resignation [acquiescence?] in approximate understanding’ (17), and tend to blame themselves anyway.  They also want to be ideal students.  They fear ridicule, often suspecting that others are closer to the ideal.  They are therefore grateful for professorial discretion in not exposing them.  There is an advantage to impersonal communication!  Professors are also safe from challenge.

Academic language provides an ideal defence mechanism.  It seems personal, although institutional support is important.  It seems to offer no limits, although it does help to rank people.  Professors can feel they are being asked to orate, to be incantatory, to arouse enthusiasm rather than to use rational democratic language.  Alternatives are excluded.  Students can only reproduce academic language and exchange their essays for lectures.  Teaching becomes speech making.  Talking takes the place of assessment of argument and administration.  Effortless speech is still at the top of intellectual labour.

Social origins are important in the ways people use the language, especially in the way they verbalise experience.  There are clear links here between upper class families and higher education.  To break this link would require more rational assessment especially, including the use of agreed criteria, and explicit aims [rather like the old Benthamite approach here?].  But this is asking a lot, it is asking in effect for ‘conversion’ (22).  There is no institutional support for a genuine interactive approach, and reforms are ‘strictly utopian under present conditions’ (23).  The logic of the institution deeply affects the possibility of criticism and reform.  Its conservatism is enhanced by the complicity of teachers and taught (23), a kind of unconscious agreement between them, and necessary ‘bad faith’.  Both have an interest in maximum security.

Appendix: the authors clarified teaching methods and also asked students for their preferences.  The traditional methods were preferred even when students were asked to consider a utopian possibility.  Any amendments were only to increase the efficiency and comfort of traditional lectures.  [The data and examples of questionnaires are provided pages 24 to 29].

Bourdieu, Passeron and de  Saint Martin 'Students and the Language of Teaching'

This is a survey on linguistic misunderstanding and whether it is connected to social class.  The researchers reproduced the test situation and operationalised key elements such as whether students could define key terms.  In fact they tested ‘several domains of vocabulary’ (37), covering academic and concrete areas, linguistic behaviour (how the students defined and used academic terms and whether they recognized polysemia).  They researched social background.

The results show a very imperfect grasp of academic language, and that there is a connection with parental social class.  However, lecturers presuppose considerable, even perfect understanding, for example with frequently repeated words.  However, the commonest words were often not misunderstood, such as ‘disinterestedness’, or ‘epistemology’.

The social background of students was assessed according to their social origins, secondary school attended, whether they studied classical languages, whether they showed prior academic success, whether they used dictionaries, and which university they were attending [looks pretty odd, but presumably measures of cultural capital?].

Language was seen as the most serious cultural obstacle, especially the richness of the vocabulary and syntax in HE.  The ability to use and decode complex statements is clearly related to whether these are used at home: in some cases, they were ‘communicated in the manner of osmosis’ (40).  Social origins seem to have an effect by leading first to drop out or survival in the education system.  What should be studied is the ‘school career, which is the sole concrete totality of action’ (41).  [This means it is not enough just to study parental social class because, as we shall see, survival in the education system can overcome the effects of parental social class to some extent, or survivors have to have qualities that can overcome those effects].  Linguistic differences cool out children from academic careers. Those who survive seem to be overachievers. 

Upper class students usually have greater advantages outside the use of academic language, for example in knowledge of the theatre.  Equality between the working classes and other groups is therefore exceptional.  There are other differences too: Parisians do better than those from the provinces, especially for working class groups.  Parisians enjoy a richer culture, but again have experienced rigorous selection, and thus had the overachieving qualities of survivors [is this because there is more competition for university places from Parisians?].  Middle class students, oddly, seem to score least in their ability to use academic language [they neither have the cultural advantages of the upper classes, nor the survival skills of the working classes?].  However, should access for working class groups be increased, the issue would restore the usual class relations (43) [because the working class students who are admitted under wider access will not have had their survival skills honed by rigorous selection].

Gender is a factor too.  Females seem to write better but they don’t manipulate language so well.  There seems to be an arts bias here as well—women face lower pressures of selection to do arts subjects. However, it is important to consider interaction between gender and other variables, because otherwise ‘the most systematic use of multivariate techniques would [leave aspects of the differences] unexplained, except by recourse to the notion of “natural inequalities between the sexes”’ (44).  To fully explain gender differences requires a combination of factors relating to social background, that type of secondary education, and the scholastic past of the student – for example lower numbers of women tend to study the classics.  However, there is an excess of male achievement even allowing for these other factors as well as gender per se, an underlying gender difference in all the sub groups.  The two genders tend to have similar results in some schools, those where they have been equally selected, but they are not equally selected in arts faculties: artistic and technical linguistic skills are both ‘feminine’ (45), both favouring ‘a sensibility to imponderable nuance and an aptitude for the impressionistic use of language’ (45).  Studying Greek does seem to help girls overachieve on the tests, however, but again this might be because it is more selective.

[So an interesting methodological argument here as well.  Simple definitions of social class give misleading results, because class can be moderated by scholastic career.  Those working class and female students who survive rigorous selection seem to be able to have qualities that diminish the effects of parental social class.  British studies, like the famous one by Douglas, noted that measured IQ scores also have this effect at the higher ranges—very bright kids seemed to get to selective secondary school whatever their parental social class.  Social classes therefore measure rather different things, and it needs to be specified how parental occupational status interacts with are the qualities if we are not to get false results.  I especially liked the point about multivariate techniques which tried to rely on simple concepts almost inevitably leave a lot of variance unexplained: and then some commentator comes in and says it must be some natural differences that are responsible!  At the same time, there did seem to be some rather subtle reasoning at times in this account, with factors suddenly appearing, such as studying Greek for women, and then explained in terms of selection, without much actual evidence that studying Greek actually is more selective.  We might be in danger here of a tautology].

Baudelot, C.  Student Rhetoric in Exams.

160 papers were studied in ethics and sociology [in 1962 and 1965].  Although hints occur, the sample is not broad enough to produce strong connections with the origins of students.

The essay [then the only form of assessment at this elite French University] is really all about rhetoric, although it is often assumed to be technical: ‘Rather than take the essay for what it is – an imposed test in rhetoric—[academics and students] prefer to take it for what it is not—a free and personal creation’ (80).  This myth is justified by phrases such as essays being offered, candidates being invited to submit and so on.

Advice to students in writing essays often openly admits that it is mostly a matter of ‘taste, tone…  [Which]…  Cannot be methodically acquired’ (81).  There is a lot of bluff about the mystical qualities of general essays as an assessment device, and how they measure creative liberty, intellectual capacity and so on.  Essays tend to be very general with only a few central topics, often rotated from year to year.  In this particular case they were faithful to the official programme, especially in sociology [I think the point here is that essays must be general if they are to cover the central areas of the course].  Instructions to students typically invite them to 'reflect' or to 'discuss' as if essay writing were ‘a free act’.  This helps to conceal the basic reliance on rhetorical skills,  which are ‘still among the fundamental criteria of academic judgment’ (83).  Technical skills and know how are to be tested indirectly through powers of expression and composition.  In practice,  a collection of comments on essays, made by the markers, indicates serious problems—they record an absence of ‘firm and clear presentations…  A scattering of simple notions…  A clumsiness of expression’ (83).

Most comments in fact emphasize formal qualities, usually construction and organization, then style.  Comments here refer to good essays being ‘balanced, precise, elegant, fluent’ (83).  Comments rarely address the substance and what the student is supposed to know.  Criteria are usually implicit, but in effect they ‘demand from the candidate conformity to an intellectual role more than a demonstration of specific skills’ (84).  [This demand for technical and specific skills features elsewhere in this collection.  It makes the sociological critics sound a bit like critics demanding vocationalism, but I think they mean the skills needed to do academic work].

The comments also indicate that the professors like to make judgments about the authors of essays and their ‘qualities of mind’ [consistency, originality and so on].  These are the main claimed benefits of writing essays: the ‘manipulation of language and ideas [is] the unquestionable sign of human and personal qualities’ (84).  In fact, the differences in speech patterns between the classes are partially responsible for falling marks among working class students [and here there is a reference to early Bernstein, which are summarized quite well in a note].

Poorer essays use short sentences.  They are grammatically and syntactically simple, with few subordinate clauses [the examples of ones that did well, pp. 84 to 85, are absolutely crammed with subordinate clauses!].  Marks seem to be awarded for the use of ‘concessive conjunctions ('though', 'although')' (85).  High scoring essays also seem to use frequent comparatives.

Poor groups use conjunctions like 'this', 'so', or 'also', wrongly, in a way which shows no real connection between ideas.  This is often because the student ‘retains from professorial language only the external signs of coherence’ (85).  There is a limited use of adjectives and verbs, and where they are used, they indicate a stress rather than actual modification [‘fundamentally’, or ‘precisely’, for example].  A vocabulary of metaphors and technical terms tends to attract high marks.  Some words appear frequently in highly marked essays, such as ‘reification’.  Poor scripts have idiomatic expressions, but ‘Professorial language has a predilection for tropes which concede complexity while preserving unity’ (86) [An example of ‘academic realism’?].  Professorial language often resolves comparisons, and demolishes common perceptions.  Poor essays and exam scripts turn these tropes into generalizations, not linked specifically to any particular terms or contexts.  These sorts of tropes tend to be associated with the culture of the elite, although the ‘hierarchy of formal criteria favours students from bourgeois backgrounds [as opposed to working class backgrounds—because the middle classes are still able to deal with forms rather than contents?].

Essay writing deploys ‘magic to exorcise error’ (87), by using professorial terms ‘like “structure”…  “Dialectic”…  “Ontological”’ (87).  Another technique is to write iterative sentences [this seems to be a particularly French construction, with the example given as ‘there is an ambiguity infinitely ambiguous’, page 87].  There is applied obscurity, or the ‘ceremonial’ use of ‘ready made, universally applicable sequences’ (88).  There are gestures of prudence, diversion, and concealment of error.  Examples include:

‘Indefinite expressions: “it is said”, “some people believe”

Attenuations…  [Which] transfer to the examiner of the task of excluding any considerations which would actually introduce doubt—“in certain respects”, “in a way”

Timid approximations: “perhaps”, “a kind of”

False particularisation: “a specific society”

False exemplification [offering abstract examples of mythical societies]

The absence of examples

“Purple” truths: “there are several kinds of societies”

Empty abstractions [which look rather like windy generalizations to an English eye]

Peremptory tone: “Comte says…”

Prophylactic relativism [when nothing is ever true or false, everyone has their own opinions and so on]’ (88-9).

These formulae arise from an ‘obsession in avoiding error’ with the poorer student, compared to the fluent ease with rhetoric among the high scorers (89).

The high scoring essays cited philosophers, like Plato, sometimes in the original.  They mentioned more than five authors, and sometimes offered lengthy analysis and proper quotations of the main ones.  Some even featured ‘erudite display’ (89) [astounding examples of detailed knowledge of particular historical events].  The best essays had knowing allusions to famous works.  The point is that all these really offer a pretence.  They are not about real experience, even though they sometimes get high marks if they declare a personal interest in the topic.  High scoring essays tend to be concrete, while poor ones tend to be approximate and hypothetical.

Some of the highest scoring essays actually used the first person singular [!  Not at all what study skills advice usually recommends] (91) they used ‘actualizing phrases’ such as ‘As a matter of fact’ [but isn’t this one of those low status idiomatic phrases?].  They featured demonstrative pronouns such as ‘in this case’.  A common word was ‘itself’ [alluding to some essential qualities as in ‘the world itself’?].  All these devices are best seen as false personalization, though as ‘fictive’ (91).

High marks seem to be awarded in essays that stressed the complexity of this topic or its exceptional interest, such as its world shattering implications.  Good essays had a clear ‘dissertatory dramaturgy’ [features of argument, even rhetorical questions.  We are less keen on these in England, but we do like a strong narrative].  Good essays feature imperatives such as ‘let us examine…’ They often feature metaphors drawn from physical violence [because they are dramatic?]—scandal, confrontation, fight.

The good essay seems to feature ‘anti scholastic attitudes and postures’ (91), to maintain the fiction that it is personal—‘an aristocratic fiction’ (92).  This is because officially, scholasticism means something bad in academic life.  Poor scripts are often described as too scholastic, for example, [implying excessively dependent on scholarly conventions, not personal enough?].  However, the good essays are also as dependent on professorial tropes, as argued above.

In general, professors tend to reward ‘a series of equally academic self images which are reflected back to them in the language of their students’ (92).  Professors like to be reassured of their effectiveness, but they do not want to acquire the image of a simplifier.  Generally, they can ignore echoes of their own utterances in essays, but penalize students who do this badly.  This is because poor mimicry would lead to a recognition of professorial ineffectiveness [and insincerity—maybe they too are really just mimicking, or aware of just posing as pedagogues?  I know I sometimes suspect this in myself].  Professors don’t like servility, because they prefer to think they are encouraging liberal views of self expression and the liberty to express opinions.

To be successful, it is necessary to develop a relationship to professorial language, but to be off handed about it.  It is necessary to get the confidence to pose as an equal.  The students are admired because they ‘confirm academics in the illusion that their teaching is not illusory’ (93) [a nice bit of French academic rhetoric here?].  Overall, deploying  rhetoric like this remains as ‘the unique criterion of academic judgment, and the essay is one of the most appropriate instruments for perpetuating cultural privilege’ (93).

Vincent, G with the assistance of Freyssnet, M.  ‘University Students and their Attitude to Academic Staff and Teaching Practice’

This was a study done in 1963 -4, just at the start of the move towards the mass university, apparently.  The questionnaire was administered to students taking philosophy, sociology and psychology courses, with some others to act as controls.  Questionnaires were devised to examine the image of the university, opinions about various forms of teaching, and instructional technology [mostly, books, films and lectures].  There was already a debate underway about the future of the university and implications for traditional teaching.  It seems clear that a number of factors affect attitudes towards change.  The researchers are aware of the problems with questionnaires, that they produce ‘stereotyped answers’, but they thought that opinions had been properly developed on these issues, since there had already been a wide debate, and it was just after a number of working parties had been set up in the university itself to consider the future.  They decided to use open ended questions, group discussions, semi structured interviews, but above all indirect questions using ordinary student language.  Not all the results were systematically patterned, however, but those that were are discussed here.  They have already suspected that there were a number of reasons for attending university – an unfocused stance,  credential seekers, and those wanting to confirm their personal superiority (97).

The official values of the university turn on claiming to be doing general culture, developing humanism and general qualities.  Most students still see it that way [compare this to the recent SOMUL study of British universities].  The questionnaire specifically invited contrasts to be drawn between these ideals and the reality, expecting some discussion comparing the theoretical and remote university with anxieties about ethical performance and training, for example.  However there was no simple contradiction between the ideals and the real: students tended to share institutional values, especially those about the need to cultivate the critical spirit, to engage in general cultural development, and to promote research (98).  When students mentioned that universities seem to be offering a general culture, they did not mean this as a criticism but as a positive thing.  Even the most critical still related to certain institutional values: for example the claim that universities are really about training teachers [meant to be derogatory] was combined with the view that universities were still compatible with academic research and general cultural development.  [At this point, I started to have doubts about the earlier work in this collection, suggesting that students pursue a kind of tactical accommodation to professional values, or conspiracy to talk up the value of scholarly experience.  May be instead, they genuinely did adhere to professional values?  Again this seems to be the implication of the SOMUL study.]

The most popular view of what universities should do was ‘permitting the individual to act in the modern world, and to understand it’ (99), rather than training specialists.  Philosophy students in particular went for the argument about developing critical thinking rather than the one about general humanism, which might mean that they genuinely do adhere to critical values [but see below].  Even social science students said they were impressed by intentions to develop critical spirit [the authors seem surprised by this, expecting the social science students would actually value expert knowledge instead—apparently psychology students do, as argued below].  The results clearly show, for the authors, that ‘the academic system appears to be able to impose its traditional values on students’ (99).  [I’m still puzzled by this – it seems to assume that these critical values are simply ideological ones, which is probably right, come to think of it].

Aims and values of the university did depend on subjects taken—philosophers like critical spirit, psychologists preferred expert knowledge.  There were social class differences too.  The most hostile groups were not from the working-class but from the upper classes—they wanted more professional training (100).  Working-class students seem to value the goals of critical thinking [imposed by the university, the authors insist].  They had often not been exposed to critical thinking at school, but became aware of its value at the university and began to demand it.  The upper classes also see universities doing some selection by qualifications, but are perfectly happy with that.  Selectiveness, and professional training  serves to justify the social rank of managers and professionals, like the families from which they came.  There were some differences between Parisians and provincials—the latter were more likely to agree with university values, especially the idea of developing critical spirit.  Provincials were also the most uncritical about things like hierarchies among the staff [so is this the test of critical spirit for the authors?].  In gender terms, the females tended to conform more to their traditional role in being interested in practical training, probably because there are more likely to become teachers or psychologists [which the authors insist is a feminine occupation].  They also have a general preference, as is traditional, about affective areas, hence their admiration for humanism.

Discussing the methods of teaching, the issue seemed to turn on whether teaching should be unequal with passive students, or academically democratic with small group work.  The latter seemed to be associated with the new groups being admitted to universities.  The research tended to focus on small group interaction as a key issue, and an ‘interactive teaching index’ was constructed [as a composite of various progressive components—small groups, and non directive debates, group work, dialogue with staff and so on]. 

Subject choice affected preferences, as did living arrangements (whether students were living with parents, in their own accommodation, or in university hostels), so that ‘social integration in a student milieu thus plays an important role’ (104).  Provincials tended to prefer interactive teaching rather than Parisians, and working-class groups more than upper class groups, and even more than middle class groups.  Female students did too.  In addition, student activists were most in favour of interactive work.  However, there is no general criticism of the university system, and no clear group of critical newcomers.

However these general preferences were then explored further by asking about practical work, which seemed to offer concrete examples of interactive group work.  Here, some differences emerged.  Provincial students preferred more directive, passive and distant forms of teaching, so did working-class and middle class groups.  The authors are suggesting that residual cultural insecurity overwhelms general preferences in practice.  When it comes to practical work, there was no pressure to make it more interactive.

When discussing the professorial function specifically, with implications for professorial type lectures, students expected professors to communicate knowledge clearly.  However, they also liked their lecturers to have ‘personality’ and a depth of knowledge,  a’presence’, certain 'ineffable qualities’, 'magnetism'.  Preferences seem to polarize into two extremes: ‘initiation into the mysteries and an infusion of grace…  [vs.]…  Impersonal communication of the particular body of knowledge’ (107).  Students certainly liked personal lectures, but they also like to see a plan and get some notes, and they valued clear exposition, which set up a contradiction.  Male students valued plans and notes more than female ones, and working-class students expressed a preference for the personal and brilliant lecture less often, preferring more accessible and productive teaching sessions.  [The authors agree with the official label for such sessions as ‘scholastic’].

Students' parental background was important in affecting these preferences, especially the educational level of their fathers.  High levels led to a lower preference for more methodical presentation.  Certain cultural disadvantages were associated with more scholastic preferences.  Even those who preferred informative lectures still were not prepared to condemn the personal and the passionate ones.  There was much ambivalence.  The only major divider seem to be the educational level of fathers.

Thus it seems that working class and middle class students definitely want to ‘acquire the spirit and culture peculiar to higher education’ (109).  Solid bourgeois groups preferred to use education to guarantee their privileges for entry to a career.  The more remote students were from university culture, the more they valued it.  They were distant from the system but also very dependent upon it.  The greater scholastic zeal was found among middle class groups [I thought it was upper class?].  Lower class groups tended to prefer groups and dialogue, while middle class groups preferred individualism—and its accompanying submission to the system.  Non upper class groups disliked virtuoso displays only because they could never acquire those particular skills.  Female students tended to follow a pattern similar to working-class students: they like the small groups and the personal forms of interaction, but they also accept professorial domination. 

Thus, overall, ‘Alienated by the system and protesting against it, university students yet remained dominated by the ends it pursues and the values it reveres’ (110).  [I’m still a bit sceptical about this.  Is the argument that the critics were not critical enough to want to take on the university itself, or to examine hierarchies among academic staff specifically?  If so, it seems a bit tautological to argue that students are not critical enough because they’re not fully critical of the system?  At the same time, I can see a point if the argument means that students are developing a taste for the more conservative and domesticated forms of humanist values and critical spirit].

The appendix has data and examples of questionnaires.  The authors say they deliberately included all the options, including negative ones, as so-called choices, in order to encourage open choice.  They preferred scales of things like teaching approaches rather than aggregates to allow for any new combinations that might arise as preferences.  They gave lots of examples in order to reduce the complexity of some of the questions.  It seems they used the very data on submissiveness to assess the likelihood of students being pressured by the questionnaire—at least I think so.

Bourdieu P., and de Saint Martin M.  ‘The Users of Lille University Library’

[This chapter returns to the peculiarities of academic life and how a particular academic discourse emerges to manage them.  In particular, all participants learn to operate in a way that indicates a deep and disinterested passion for academic work, while simultaneously pursuing much more practical and social ends.]

The research undertaken indicates a variety of uses for the library, including the official one – that the library provides the necessary instruments for study.  The library is also used a meeting place, and has other cultural meanings.  The survey undertaken of users showed, for example, that 35% of them were doing their assignments in the library, but not using the library’s facilities; 25% of them were consulting reference works; 26% were actually borrowing books.

Student interviews revealed that the library was a bad place to actually do work, but a good place to be seen to be doing it.  The researchers observed 33 kinds of activity, most of them to do with relaxation.  They conclude that the library really offers ‘real or imaginary encouragement to study…  contact with peers…  or a vague expectation of making those contacts’ (123).

Students revealed substantial ignorance of library practices, including the services actually provided, and how the catalogue worked.  When asked for improvements, very few asked for better technical facilities.  More important seems to be the image of work in the library, that entering the library is a way of doing academic work.  Just changing facilities would not alter this image: it is a ‘common assumption that objective conditions directly govern attitudes or actually produce them…  This [is an] illusion of a spontaneous sociology’ (124).  Using facilities requires predispositions and skills.  There are cultural obstacles to frequent use, often concealed: for example a common complaint about lack of books really indicated poor training in how to search for books, and the pursuit of a narrow reading without alternatives.  As with many aspects of academic discourse, these matters are concealed, and cannot be declared.

Work in the library is not approached in a methodical and rational manner.  Instead, users follow some ideal version, often reading impulsively.  They are reproducing the way they read for leisure.  Reading library books is indeed often found at other leisure sites such as cafes.  The work atmosphere of the library, its institutional and organized aspects, puts people off.  This partly explains persistent student inability to use the library, even to borrow a book.  It does help, however, if students have been equipped with some understanding of the methods and techniques of academic work.

Libraries are places where the students can achieve a suitable image.  This is why they are popular with first years.  Females tend to be overrepresented, possibly because they like being enclosed, meeting peers, and avoiding the boring and isolating aspects of academic work.  When asked for their images of existing and ideal libraries, male students saw them as a railway station, while female ones saw them as beehives.  Libraries are more ambivalent places for women, while men firmly associated them with work (and also described them as monasteries).

The ambivalence for women could reflect the tensions between their traditional role and their new role as a student.  Women are faced with contradictory expectations: their ‘traditional’ qualities tend to be manifested as useful ‘academic zeal and docility’ (127), but also as ‘sociability, an interest in meetings and contacts’.  Libraries are classic arenas for such ambivalence.

Working-class students tended to be much more serious.  They more often worked at home and were less interested in the image of being hard-working.  As a result, they did not usually work in libraries, especially when really serious work was required, as in preparation for exams.  They also tended to chat less.

Library use seems to be a combination of work and leisure.  Dilettantes like to combine the two and to convince themselves that they are being proper students.  They can even persuade themselves that leisure really is a matter of cultural training anyway [surely they are right?] Thus working actually in libraries means working but also doing leisure, with all its satisfactions.

The empirical research for the chapter, and the actual questionnaire, can be found in the appendix (128-32).  There are questions on social background, family, and type, the number of years in education, the type of student, what they do in the library, how they work and where, and the images of libraries that they have, including what they ought to be.  Class interacts with gender, for example working class women were more serious. 

880 students were sampled.  Systematic observation was also pursued – problems here include only getting to observe those students who used the catalogue and got into the library: some will have gone straight to the book and borrowed it.  Dilettantism  can also be observed in, for example, taking sloppy notes or references.  It was rare to see a student asking a librarian a question. 

The team recommends a serious induction programme, focusing on the actual use of the facilities [an odd conclusion, because in the other chapters they are so pessimistic about the cultural factors persisting despite attempts to change them].

 More social theory notes