Academic Identity in the Neoliberal University: Reflexivity, Agency and Structure

Here is an abstract of the paper to be delivered by Dr Alex Ding, the Director of the Centre for Excellence in Language Teaching, University of Leeds.

This paper argues that academic identity is shaped by the structural forces and effects of neoliberalism on higher education. Failure to fully account for this renders theories of academic identity, including those of EAP students, partial and impotent and limits the agency of the academic community.

I begin by defining neoliberalism and then linking the rise of neoliberalism to a concurrent explosion of interest and changes in the meaning and productive powers of ‘identity’. More detailed attention is given to analysing the neoliberal structures that (EAP) students are faced with when entering HE and how these structures frame and curtail students’ identities and agency and therefore their capacity to contribute to structural changes.

The second section argues that dominant theories of academic identity which emanate from poststructuralism fail to offer anything other than a diminished notion of identity which leads to an emaciated understanding of agency. The main focus here is to provide a more potent theory of identity, partially inspired by critical realism, which links a reflexive self to agency and structural change. Reflexive selves affirm commitments, values and actions through deliberation and dialogue. This is what gives social identities and this stresses the entwining of identity with action, ethics and the social/political arena.

Finally, I explore the pedagogical consequences of reflexivity. In suggesting extending current pedagogical practices in EAP I argue for opportunities for students and practitioners to consider what it means to study and teach in a neoliberal university and what identity/agency options are worth striving for. Exploring these alternatives is the first step to encouraging student reflexivity regarding their identity and therefore their agency. Engaging in pedagogical dialogue of this kind raises questions of practitioner identity. How we perceive our identity and role within HE is crucial to us and our students.


alex-dingAlex Ding is Director of the Centre for Excellence in Language Teaching and Lecturer in EAP at the University of Leeds. He has a longstanding interest in teacher development, autonomy and scholarship. He blogs at and tweets @alexanderding


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