Challenging Empty Signifiers in Search of Common Values: Collaborative Learning as Transformative Leadership

By Liz Jackson.

Published by The International Journal of Diversity in Education

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Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: September 20, 2016 Free Download

Collaborative inquiry into the nature of values in university education can lead to their clarification and strengthening. However, in real-world workplaces, the common feeling of busyness can alienate academics from one another. In individualistic, performance-oriented higher education environments, “values talk” related to educational activities in and recognition of education as value-laden, not only related to professional performance but to personal and emotional development, can seem risky. Yet developing collaborative understanding of shared priorities such as core educational values remains crucial to effectively aligning teaching and learning practices to communal goals. This article reflects on one quest to elaborate the core educational values of a diverse group of education faculty in Hong Kong. The article explores how the group attempts to clarify shared values and elaborates on this quest as one of challenging “empty signifiers.” Empty signifiers constitute sites of contestation over meaning and significance. In the project discussed here, definitions and significations of “leadership,” “evaluation,” “review,” “collegiality,” “excellence,” and “political education” became, through collaborative exploration, contested once again, and controversial: gaps were revealed between claims of meaning. After sharing the case study, the article concludes by reflecting on the following questions: Can the collaborative work of refilling such emptied terms help constitute a more empowering, transformative leadership in higher education? Can we systematize our good intentions to improve, not just deconstruct, academic structures in non-ideal workspaces? Or are gaps over meaning better understood as inherent to a dynamic environment of collaborative learning for transformational, culturally and/or socially appropriate leadership?

Keywords: Higher Education, Neoliberalism, Professional Development, Leadership, Collaboration

The International Journal of Diversity in Education, Volume 16, Issue 3, September 2016, pp.59-69. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: September 20, 2016 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 967.138KB)).

Dr. Liz Jackson

Assistant Professor, Division of Policy, Administration, and Social Sciences Education, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, Hong Kong