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James Robson - Politics, Power, and Performance: An ethnography of religious education teachers’ engagement in online social spaces

This paper will present preliminary findings from an ongoing multi-sited ethnography investigating religious education teachers’ use of online social spaces. Looking particularly at the construction of RE teachers’ professional identities, the study focuses on two primary online social spaces: the TES RE Forum and the NATRE Facebook Page. However, also included, as secondary ethnographic sites within this multi-sited framework, are users’ schools and homes as a means of analyzing the interaction between the online and offline domains. The methodological approach is open and inductive, utilizing multiple data sources. The primary methods include: participant observation and analysis of online interactions; in depth narrative based online and offline interviews; analysis of networks; elite interviews; and analysis of RE/ religious discourses in the media.
Themes emerging from the fieldwork will be discussed in this paper. In particular, the neutrality of the online social spaces being studied will be questioned and the relationship between the agendas of parent companies and RE teachers’ online engagement and understandings of themselves and their subject will be explored. Additionally, Goffman’s image of ‘backstage’ in his framework of performance will be considered as having useful theoretical implications for an understanding of the place online social spaces play in RE teachers professional lives.

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James Robson - Politics, Power, and Performance: An ethnography of religious education teachers’ engagement in online social spaces

  1. 1. Politics, Power, and Performance An ethnography of religious education teachers’ engagement in online social spaces James Robson 12 June 2012
  2. 2. Introduction The Project in a Nutshell  An ethnography of religious education teachers’ engagement and interaction in online social spaces to gain a theorised understanding of these online communities and how they feature in users’ professional lives.
  3. 3. Background: What is RE  A statutory subject, but locally determined  Has been a popular GCSE full and short course But  Not included in the Ebacc – reduction in teaching time and teaching staff  Teacher Training reductions  LA cuts and advisor redundancies – removing support networks for already isolated sole subject specialists Therefore, a feeling that RE is under threat and RE teachers are isolated (NATRE 2011a &b)
  4. 4. Background: Online Social Spaces  Where in the past RE teachers were able to interact with peers via LA advisors, local groups and CDP, these opportunities are becoming increasingly rare.  However, access to the Internet is universal amongst UK teachers, making online social spaces an important potential place for professional interaction.  Research undertaken by the Culham Institute has shown that the numbers of RE teachers using these spaces has grown significantly over the last 5 years.  More broadly, there’s an bourgeoning body of literature discussing interactions in online social spaces and the implications of such interaction for the construction of identity and personal and professional meaning.  Therefore, I’m interested in investigating these issues in the context of RE.
  5. 5. Aim & Questions The aim is to investigate the use of online social spaces by RE teachers in their professional lives and how they perceive and construct understandings of themselves and their subject through such online engagement. Underlying this is the wider aim of understanding how RE teacher identities are constructed and the role online social spaces may play in this.
  6. 6. Questions This study is framed by an overarching research question: How do RE teachers engage in online social spaces in the course of their professional lives? A number of sub-questions help answer this primary question:  What motivates RE teachers to use online social spaces, what do they hope to get out of it and what do they actually get out of it?  How is RE teachers’ engagement in online social spaces incorporated into their wider online and offline lives?  How is the engagement of RE teachers in online social spaces influenced by the agendas of organizations, stakeholders and interest groups?
  7. 7. Methodology A digital ethnography Conducting in depth ethnographic fieldwork in two professional related online social spaces: the TES RE Forumand the NATRE Facebook Page. Defining the field Both online activity and ‘being’ a teacher are necessarily situated in offline contexts. Therefore the teachers’ school/ classroom and anywhere the teachers are located in when they use the online spaces (e.g. home, bus, etc.) are included as part of the wider focus. The interaction between the offline and online is consequently an important part of this study.
  8. 8. Methodology 2 Data comes from multiple sources:  Network analysis  Participant observation  User interviews (online and offline)  Targeted key interviews  Grey literature (print media and increasingly online articles) Analysis: An adapted version of Miles and Huberman’s matrix approach (grounded, holistic, context focused)
  9. 9. Emergent findings  Political identities and political action.  Neutrality of online spaces?  The importance of anonymity and performance – Goffman and the TES forum acting as a back region.
  10. 10. Political Identities – Political Action  ‘I didn’t really get involved in the politics around RE until I started using the forum’ - Charlene  ‘With the Ebacc, I was angry, but with all the information on the forum and Facebook about how to write to MPs I was actually motivated to do something… I ended up writing about 5 different letters…’ – Gemma  ‘I love being political. I actually chased Gove down to ask him a question about RE and part of me was thinking this will make a really good story to share with the forum’ – Mrs DMC
  11. 11. Lobbying  Therefore, politicization isn’t just a natural product of engagement, it is also an specific intention of these sites to foster political discourse and action.  ‘So here's Michael Gove's letter to Tim Oates in response to the Primary Curriculum Review. There are plans to revise the aims of the curriculum. Spot the total absence of RE AGAIN. Time to write you our MPs again I think’ NATRE 11th June 2012
  12. 12. Power - Neutrality of online spaces? NATRE users enter a crisis discourse because the dominant users (NATRE representatives) emphasize a particular interpretation of the state of RE. One which is in their interests. NATRE – RE’s Pugilists ‘I note that we have had 12 education secretaries in the last 22 years. This means they last, on average, one year and ten months. Mr Gove has done 1 year and 3 months now, but I think he is below average. Conservative ministers last a shorter average than Labour… Here's for sure: I intend to be around repairing RE from damage done when Mr Gove has moved along.’ - NATRE Representative unsolicited post
  13. 13. Performance and Anonymity  Performance as a metaphor for both teaching and interacting with peers in schools  ‘For me teaching is a performance. I get dressed up in a particular costume and act in a particular way wherever I am in the school. In the classroom and the staffroom. I only let my guard down in the pub and online’ – Charlene  ‘I think my online interactions are more honest because my school and job are anonymous so I can say things I wouldn’t share in the staffroom’ – Gemma  ‘I’ve got an image as the tough forthright one in my school, I don’t want to lose that, so being online I can show weaknesses and ask questions that I wouldn’t ask my colleagues at school’ – Maybelle
  14. 14. Goffman and the TES forum as a back stage  Dramaturgical perspective of performative sociology: front stage – back stage.  Where Goffman has been used in online contexts, analyses have normally emphasised anonymity and identity play and online performances. However, on the TES Forum, anonymity seems to provide a back stage for RE teachers:  A place to relax, complain, self-mock, show weakness, with no risk to damaging front stage identities  A place for users to shape themselves into more adept front stage actors
  15. 15. Conclusion Changing experience of being a teacher  Membership of a group that previously did not exist  Feelings of political empowerment  Both reducing isolation, but increasing and emphasising it in schools  A new back stage area