The Agent Provocateur

June 7, 2010

One of the lines at the IT workshop I went to recently suggested that a part of the role of the teacher was to be an “agent provocateur”. I was intrigued by this concept and went online to ensure I’d understood it correctly. Tragically, the only definition I could find was from Wikipedia. I kid you not – “Agent Provocateur” is the name of a lingerie company and a shoot ’em up style computer game and assuming that I don’t think lingerie, gaming and teaching are deeply connected (or at least not in the areas I teach in!) then I’m left with the following:

“Traditionally, an agent provocateur (plural: agents provocateurs, French for “inciting agent(s)”) is a person employed by the police or other entity to act undercover to entice or provoke another person to commit an illegal act. More generally, the term may refer to a person or group that seeks to discredit or harm another by provoking them to commit a wrong or rash action.”

Now I’m pretty sure our presenter was not suggesting that our role is to get students to commit illegal acts. So if I understand the “spirit” of his suggestion then I guess it’s about being in the role of provoking students to think or act in a way they would usually not. It’s not a term I’m entirely comfortable with as it invites the idea of a malicious power dynamic. However the spirit is one I can ponder. I’ve been thinking back on the idea of pain in learning I blogged about a few posts ago, and the idea of both teachers and students needing self-mastery rather than mere compassion or self-pity. I think this is similar to the idea of meta-process. That one might move outside of content and process to a helicopter view of the interaction. It’s like a broader view of the world where one can feel one’s own discomfort, recognise the discomfort of others, but then move to a third place where you hold the discomfort together. That’s the bit I’m stuck on. Reflexivity doesn’t seem the right word.

Then the question is how does one encourage this in one’s students? Some (not all I hasten to add) of the comments I have heard from students are at the level of ” here’s my idea” and “that’s an idea I agree with, that’s an idea I disagree with”. I’ve been disappointed by the absence of deeper thinking. It feels very reactionary. So my pondering for today is how, as a teacher, can I respond to students in ways that elicits a higher response and moves thinking on? How do I do a better job of disengaging my own defensiveness? How do I hold onto compassion without rescuing?

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Anyone following this blog will have seen the recent theme: the difficulty I have with the assessment side of the teaching role. Support and development I can do. And I don’t mind challenging students either. But placing a grade on someone and then watching their response to that (inevitably one of disappointment) is torturous.  I struggle with the “judgement” part of the role. I think the difficulty is that the grade distracts from the learning. No matter how much feedback I give, students still react to that little number in the corner –as though their life depended upon it, as though that defined them. And the problem is that I can relate to that.

There’s still that little voice deep inside me that asks “Well, who am I to judge this person?”

There are of course a number of ways of responding to this voice:

  • One could for example, respond through role theory: I am teacher, you are student. This is part of the relationship dynamic. It is also part of the role of teacher to assess.
  • One could try the choice ideology: you chose to come to university, these are the conditions under which one studies. Being judged and graded is part of the experience. You chose this.One could respond through a developmental frame. Part of the process of developing skills is benchmarking progress. Grades are merely a benchmarking exercise to acknowledge levels of competence and to identify areas for further development.
  • One could respond through credentialism: my degrees are evidence of my mastery of the field and enable me to sit in judgement over others.
  • One could respond via industry standards: my peers have judged me to be competent and deemed me of a high enough standard to evaluate the skills of others.
  • One could respond through a cold power play: the university has hired me. This is my job. What I say, goes.
  • One could try logic: if we didn’t award grades there would be no way of assessing who was competent and who was not. This would render your degree no more than an attendance certificate, thus making it relatively worthless.

But this is not about logic, it’s about ego. In the last few weeks I’ve had so many meetings with students who have cried, debated, defended, justified and questioned. I’ve even had one student explain that I clearly didn’t know what I was doing and went on to offer me teaching tips! (For the record and just in case any of my students are reading this, this strategy is unlikely to lead to a higher grade).

However no matter how I explain it, I tie myself in knots over this aspect of the role. No one teaches you how to do it. It’s not like you can take a course in “’how to mark a paper”. There’s no training. If you are lucky (as I have been) sympathetic peers may mentor you for a while. And if you are resourceful you can employ the assistance of institutional experts, like TEDI at UQ, to help build stronger courses and ensure highly relevant marking criteria. But there comes a point where you have to sit down in front of 3500 words and decide if this warrants a 7 or an 8 out of 10. Was this a strong and persuasive argument with the need for additional theory to help provide rigour, or merely a good start with sound arguments but much room for further improvement?  You’d think it would get easier over time. But this is my sixth year teaching at university and I’m still struggling.

In the 1984 text, Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackey wrote of the experience of working class people studying in US colleges. What they observed was a lack of confidence for lower class students, based on real or perceived weaknesses in preparation. Although motivated to do well and extremely aware of the value of education, they lived in silent fear, wondering, “When will they find out that I am a fraud?” Apparently this is vastly different for students from upper class backgrounds, who tend to  have a greater sense of belonging or entitlement in the university system.

I always thought when I  finished my PhD I’d finally have a sense of mastery: a field or endeavour to call my own. Once I was a “Dr” then I could finally relax and stop worrying about being “found out”. But all it did was deepen my paranoia making me so aware of all that I haven’t yet read, all that I still don’t know. So go on, ask me a question: I can almost guarantee you I won’t know the answer!

(on the other hand I probably have a great little process..)


Ryan, Jake and Charles Sackrey, Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class (Boston: South End Press), 1984.