Mapping the Terrains of Student Voice Pedagogies

An Autoethnography

by Mairi McDermott (Author)
Textbook X, 206 Pages
Series: Critical Qualitative Research, Volume 28
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Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Introductions
  • Chapter Two: Theorizing Student Voice Pedagogies
  • Chapter Three: Contours of Student Voice
  • Chapter Four: Situating Autoethnography in the Cartography
  • Chapter Five: Shifting Terrains of Student Voice and Transformative Teaching and Learning
  • Chapter Six: “Finding Voice”: Acoustic Contours of Difference and Recognizability
  • Chapter Seven: Affect Matters in Permutations in Student Voice Encounters
  • Chapter Eight: Remapping the Contours of Student Voice with Desire
  • Chapter Nine: Willing Disorientations: Unsettling Student Voice Possibilities

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I was surrounded by love and support from many who made this project possible. As knowledge production is immanently social, the myriad conversations and relationships I had through the years shaped the writing in ways that are incommensurable. With this being said, I would like to thank a few people who were particularly pivotal in my process.

I am immensely grateful to the members of my doctoral supervisory committee: Professor George J. Sefa Dei, Professor Shirley Steinberg, and Professor Kathleen Gallagher. Several years have passed since we worked together during my doctoral program and returning to the thesis to transform it into a book manuscript brought you ever nearer to me, even as time and geography have propelled a particular distance. It has been a joy feeling as though you were present in the here and now by remembering the process of engaging in my doctoral research. I would like to thank Nana (George) who provided a foundation for me to build my study from, both in his scholarship and pedagogy, as well as his unwavering, critical and challenging support of my work as I negotiated my emerging voice. When I relocated during the research process, Shirley provided much needed community and a home for me to navigate writing and pushed me to articulate my work to a wider audience. Kathleen’s scholarship has touched me in many incommensurable ways and provoked a critical ethnographic pen. I was honored to have her read my work and share her insights on the study. I wish to extend my sincere thanks to ←ix | x→my external examiner, Professor Jennifer Kelly, whose critical reading of the study offered a space for me to articulate the contributions of the project beyond the thesis itself.

Additionally, several others supported the research, and I want to thank the following people for their continued belief in my work and me: Professor John Portelli, Professor Jabari Mahiri, and Dr. Yvette Jackson. John’s quiet support through various stages of this study provided important groundwork for the cultivation of the research as it related to the cultivation of myself as a scholar. Jabari’s teaching and mentorship have helped shape my researcher self, and I was always encouraged to bring my ‘A-game’ through Yvette’s pedagogy of affirmation. I am thankful that our paths have crossed. I am deeply indebted to the following women who have played integral roles in the coming about of this study: Jen, Stephanie, Tamara, and Patricia. I would be remiss if I did not specially acknowledge Deb Bradley, with whom and through whom I have learned so much about my writing process and believe that I now write more effectively from working with her.

Mom and dad, without you, your love and generosity, this journey would not have been viable. Thank you for providing the conditions, in so many ways, for me to imagine this work as a possibility and for your reminders that I can and ought to do it. To my brother Liam, I have always felt your presence in my work, reminding me of the importance of making space for all students in our teaching and learning. My in-laws have propped me up with confidence that is much appreciated. Mummy, you welcomed me as your daughter and have believed in me from the moment we met, thank you for your steadfast faith. Dexter, Brianna and Chelsea, our chats throughout the process re-energized me to push on. Finally, Marlon, my partner, your friendship, teaching, patience, and love have sustained me and provided endless motivation, and to Ida and Leo, our children, thank you for the focus, clarity and purpose you have brought to my life.

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Establishing the Landscape

What does it mean to situate students’ voices in one’s pedagogies? How does engaging a student voice pedagogy (re)articulate teaching and learning? In the following I present an autoethnography of student voice as a pedagogical impulse within, through, and against neoliberal contours of contemporary teaching and learning. Revisiting two experiences I had with student voice projects I trouble the made-to-seem totalizing framework of neoliberalism in education, amplifying the ways in which teachers and students are lured into particular neoliberal performances while they also refuse those performances as hermetically sealed. Thinking and writing through my perspectives and lived experiences as a teacher, student voice facilitator and researcher, then, I situate student voice pedagogies as the acknowledgment and disruption of personal, institutional, and social barriers to genuine and transformative inclusion of students’ voices, perspectives, opinions, and experiences, as crucial aspects of teaching and learning. Student voice, as presented in the governing literature, is broadly conceptualized as the intentional invitation and inclusion of the voices and perspectives of students in matters related to their education, as part of particular curricular, pedagogical and reform trends in contemporary Western education (Cook-Sather, 2002; Fielding, 2004a, 2004b, 2006; James, 2007; Kozol, 1991; Lodge, 2005; Oldfather et al., 1999; Robinson & ←1 | 2→Taylor, 2007; Rudduck & Fielding, 2006). Discourses of student voice found in this body of literature, in educational reforms, and in practices are often articulated as more than asking students to speak; it is about changing the imperial cultures and structures of our schools (Cook-Sather, 2002; Fielding, 2004a, 2004b, 2006; Kozol, 1991), which is what initially drew me to take up and theorize student voice as a practice in my teaching and learning. Cook-Sather (2002) articulates student voice as such:

To move toward more fully authorizing the perspectives of students is not simply to include them in existing conversations within existing power structures. Authorizing student perspectives means ensuring that there are legitimate and valued spaces within which students can speak, re-tuning our ears so that we can hear what they say, and redirecting our actions in response to what we hear. The twin challenges of authorizing student perspectives are (a) changing the structures in our minds that have rendered us disinclined to elicit and attend to student voices and (b) changing the structures in educational relationships and institutions that have supported and have been supported by this disinclination. (p. 4)

I focus on student voice projects that explicitly locate themselves as “student voice” within this study. In other words, while there are many approaches to education that engage students’/youths’ voices—for example, anti-racism education and critical pedagogy—I am making a distinction between these and projects that articulate themselves as “student voice” within the literature and particular reform efforts.

More specifically, I am interested in understanding the experiences of student voice reforms and how educators take up student voice in their pedagogies. I am interested in how educators come to understand themselves and their students in terms of student voice, and I am particularly concerned with how social differences come to contour student voice pedagogies. To contextualize this study, I draw out three interwoven sites of interest in relation to this project—1. Neoliberalism; 2. “reform fatigue” or how teachers experience implementing reform; and 3. (imagined) teacher identities—in an effort to understand some of the broader forces informing this contemporary inclination towards student voice in education. In other words, I engage the ways neoliberalism, reform fatigue, and teacher identity present possibilities and limitations for what can be imagined in student voice pedagogies.

In this first chapter, Introductions, I begin to share my processes through this project and the ways in which these concepts and concerns inform the remaining chapters. I first articulate the broader context and problem of the study by engaging these concepts of neoliberalism, educational reform, and teacher identity. Continuing with the context of the study, I move on to briefly situate student voice. I then locate how I came into this project both through time and through subject ←2 | 3→location, and after introducing the remaining organization of the study, I attend to the pedagogical implications of the project. Next, I will briefly address the purpose of the study and the research questions. The remainder of this section discusses the broader socio-historical context in which student voice and this study emerge.

Purpose of the Study and Research Questions

In a broad sense, by thinking through my lived experiences as an entry point to engage the experiences of a particular educational reform—student voice—the purpose of this study is to understand the ways in which teachers take up educational reforms, particularly those that represent transformative possibilities in their iteration. Student voice, for example, is often presented in the literature as a method to disrupt the banking model of education (Freire, 1970). More specifically, my intention is to provide a space for critical reflexivity of my teacher practices, and open the door for dialogic engagement with educational reforms in relation to the socio-historical configurations of schooling and education, the emotionality of educational reform implementation processes, and the possibilities and limitations for different bodies in different spaces to “succeed”1 in enfolding transformative educational reforms into their practices. One of my desires for this work is that this study will encourage pedagogical thoughtfulness (van Manen, 1997) not only for myself, the researcher, but also for those who may feel alienated, stuck behind a closed door, in their existing teaching practices during this epoch of educational reform and disembodied neoliberalism. Framing these purposes are the following research questions:

How do teachers understand student voice?

What are the ways in which teachers experience student voice?

How does the experience of student voice organize and inscribe teacher ←→ student relationships?

How are student voice practices shaped, organized, and inscribed through social difference?

With these goals in mind, I turn now to frame the socio-political terrain of schooling and education wherein student voice resides.

Neoliberalism and Education Reform

In conjunction with the evermore increasing neoliberal framework that has shaped our institutions and social relationships since the 1980s (Davies & Bansel, 2007; Gallagher & Fusco, 2006; Gallagher & Lortie, 2005; Giroux, 2008; Harvey, 2005; ←3 | 4→McMahon & Portelli, 2012), education in the English-speaking Western world has undergone significant and ongoing externally-imposed reforms (Ball, 2003; Day, 2002; Day & Smethem, 2009; Goodson, 2001; Hargreaves, 2005; Lasky, 2004; Lingard & Mills, 2000). These reforms are increasingly written through business frameworks by non-educators and are permeated with rewards and punishments for districts, schools, administrators, teachers and students who either “meet” externally imposed “standards” or don’t (Ball, 2003; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Day, 2002; Day & Smethens, 2009; Essed & Goldberg, 2002; Spring, 2006). You are rewarded if you are able to become recognizable in relation to the ever-shifting, yet consistently ethno-culturally centric, measurable confines of these reforms. When I was undergoing my teacher training, I was taught to engage this thing of a “Teaching Point” to frame my lessons. In both my lesson plans and on the chalk/white board in front of the class, I was instructed to write a short statement (and it had to be written as a statement!) that would capture what the students would be doing in that lesson. One day I was in the English Language Arts (ELA) office when a veteran teacher came in and proclaimed that she had been written up after an official observation, because she did not have a teaching point on the board. Instead, falling back on the previously imposed curricular model, she had written a question that would frame the lesson; she did not have “TP: …” written in bold—instead there was a question mark on the board! She was told that she would have to talk with the English department’s Assistant Principal to learn how to write “proper” lesson plans, lesson plans that engage the teaching point rather than ask a question. According to this teacher, she did not receive any other feedback on her lesson. My classroom shared a wall with hers and I knew the rapport she had with the students. I was certain that her lesson went well and that her students were engaged and learning; however, because she did not present her lesson engaging the “correct” language-of-the-moment, she was disciplined, and a punitive note was put in her file.

I am interested in how the grammar of these reforms are taken up to shape, and in the instance narrated above, limit what is possible in the classroom, narrowly confining what teaching and learning look like. I am interested in how these reforms are framed as deregulation while the grittiness of implementation—the contradictions, struggles, anxieties, uncertainties—are left to the teachers (Apple, 2000; Ball, 2003; Hargreaves, 2005; Larner, 2000; Lasky, 2004; Niesz, 2006). I query how teachers must be(come) the “enterprising subject” (Ball, 2003; Bragg, 2007; Essed & Goldberg, 2002; Gallagher & Fusco, 2006; Giroux, 2008; Harvey, 2005) called upon by disembodied neoliberal logics framing the reforms in order to be made recognizable. As Essed & Goldberg (2002) importantly articulate, “Those who do not fit the productivity profile along the lines of gender, race, first-third world situatedness, or educated-illiterate are likely to be marginalized …” ←4 | 5→(p. 1075). Even as discourses of meritocracy and excellence prevail through neoliberal imperatives, particular bodies who have historically been tangentialized by way of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality and religion are always already excluded from acknowledgment, through universalizing narratives of progress and “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps”. Neoliberalism in education erases these racialized and embodied experiences woven into the structures of contemporary social life.

Thinking about my experiences as a secondary teacher, I reflect on how we (as teachers) protect ourselves from sanctions brought by “incompetence” by closing the doors to our classrooms, ensuring that our anxieties do not seep out through the cracks in a moment of inattention. We “confidently” perform the next trend in curriculum and pedagogy and quietly try to “make it work” for the various youth in our classrooms, while pushing down sensations of inadequacy swelling in our bodies. We have conversations about “best practices” and “what works” (Ball, 2003; Darling-Hammond, 2010; Day & Smethen, 2009). We learn to talk about how successful we are, rarely admitting to our colleagues that we are struggling, that we are afraid we are not “doing it right” (Ball, 2003); we certainly take caution in articulating the pernicious effects of the entrenched racism within education at large and the particulars of the reforms imposed upon us. In this book, I am thinking through what this produces, what are the possibilities and limitations for teaching and learning within these conditions? Thirty years ago, Madeline Grumet (1989) wrote of conditions of alienation and how they limit teachers’ capacities for influencing the broader culture(s) of schooling and education: “Alienated from the bureaucracy of schools, defended against administrators, competitive with colleagues, the teacher who does her best work behind the classroom door is trapped in privatized and isolated labor” (p. 15, emphasis added). I ask, then, how do we do—and how are we doing—teaching and learning alternatively in an epoch of technicized universalism, accountability and commodification (Darling-Hammond, 2010; Davies & Bansel, 2007; Gallagher & Lortie, 2005; Gallagher & Fusco, 2006; Giroux, 2008; Hursh, 2000, 2007; Larner, 2000)? In other words, how do we de-buttress the imperial, standardizing, neoliberal classifications of teaching and learning through our pedagogical decisions? What are the ways in which we can address the thorny histories of colonialism and global capitalist modernity within our practices, contained by the ways contemporary education serves, regulates and privileges individualized, private market interests?

Figurations of Teacher Identities in Public, Private, and Policy Contexts

Another pressure or stressor in the lives of teachers with which I am concerned is the question of teacher identity in the public and educational policy and reform imaginaries. Ball (2003) discusses the ways in which educational reforms not ←5 | 6→only change what goes on in classrooms, but also changes who “the teacher” is and can be (see also, Gallagher & Fusco, 2006). This imagined teacher identity is often replete with a disavowal of embodiment, of experiences of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality and religion, while purporting some universal norm as coded through White, masculinist, heterosexual, able-bodied Judeo-Christian values. These traces of cultural expectations of who “the teacher” is continue to inform teachers’ possible identities, at times placing a tremendous amount of pressure on teachers (particularly if the teacher does not fit within the imagined universalized identity). Britzman (2003) writes, “Cultural myths offer a set of ideal images that are taken up as measures for thought, affect, and practice” (p. 30) and “the identity of a teacher becomes overpopulated with cultural myths” (p. 29). As part of this project I engage the ways in which these cultural myths, which Britzman identifies as, “everything depends upon the teacher, teachers are self-made, and teachers are experts” (p. 7) are now brushed up alongside the disembodied neoliberal requirement of the “enterprising subject” (Ball, 2003; Bragg, 2007; Gallagher & Fusco, 2006; Giroux, 2008; Harvey, 2005) in which the teacher is expected to be self-regulating and independent. Combined, these images of the teacher “situate the teacher’s individuality as the problem and proffer a static solution of authority, control, mastery, and certainty as the proper position. They seem to explain competency as the absence of conflict” (Britzman, 2003, p. 7). I query how I, and other teachers, have lived and experienced this imperative towards “progress” as seamless, unified and without conflict or contradiction? I suggest that these discursive imperatives and cultural myths of dominant education along with “reform fatigue” (Lingard & Mills, 2000) contribute to the stress and alienation expressed increasingly throughout the teacher profession in neoliberal times (Jackson, McDermott, Simmons, & McDermott, 2015; Metlife, 2012).


Mapping the Terrains of Student Voice Pedagogies is an autoethnography of McDermott’s experiences with student voice reforms. Ultimately, the author is concerned with better understanding the possibilities for student voice as a transformative teaching and learning practice within the context of neoliberal education. The discussion is anchored in two past student voice projects in which McDermott was involved, one as a researcher and one as a facilitator. As method, the author revisits these experiences through memory and various artifacts to unpack embodied voices of difference. More specifically, McDermott is concerned with how teachers take up student voice in their pedagogies, how teachers come to understand themselves and their students in terms of student voice, and how social differences contour student voice pedagogies. The author queries: How do experiences with student voice inform teacher <-- --> student relationships? And, how are student voice practices shaped, organized, and inscribed through social difference? Grounding this inquiry is post-structural feminist anti-racism as an interwoven discursive orientation and politics for troubling and transforming schooling and education. Analyses address how McDermott’s presence as an individual and as a member of socio-historical groups in the student voice initiatives affected the projects’ dynamics. The findings amplify the necessity of time and space for educators to critically reflect on their practices when implementing reforms, time and space that were provided by engaging autoethnography. The book contributes important strategic processes towards realizing the necessary goals of critical reflexive practices in teaching and learning, addressing the question of ‘how’ one might do critical reflection through autoethnography.


X, 206
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (October)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 206 pp.

Biographical notes

Mairi McDermott (Author)

Mairi McDermott, PhD, is an assistant professor and Chair of Curriculum and Learning in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Most recently she co-edited two volumes: Affect, Embodiment and Place in Critical Literacy: Assembling Theory and Practice and Centering African Proverbs, Indigenous Folktales, and Cultural Stories in Curriculum: Units and Lesson Plans for Inclusive Education.


Title: Mapping the Terrains of Student Voice Pedagogies