Dr Wolfgang Marx

Associate Professor in Historical Musicology, UCD School of Music

Critical thinking is a core part of any university programme. Developing the ability to question ideologies, identifying the ways in which power relationships manifest themselves, and seeing through attempts by those in power to obfuscate are central components of higher education. Yet out in “real life” it is not easy to live according to these principles: After all, simply identifying these issues through critical thinking is not sufficient. The true challenge is “critical acting” – doing something to improve a situation on the basis of our critical insights. 

Today, perhaps more than ever before, just describing the world’s problems is not enough; critical insights are only useful insofar as they lead to attempts to tackle and solve said problems. However, speaking truth to power inside and outside the academy is not easy and can lead to repercussions. It is a core part of academic activity but under systemic threat in many places.

Critical Acting requires an understanding of ethics; a knowledge of strategies to engage in controversies effectively (finding allies, disseminating knowledge and taking appropriate action for example); a way of coping mentally with the backlash by those being critiqued (particularly in our over-polarised world); and a strengthening of the moral backbone, something all of us regularly require so as to resist the temptation to enjoy the easier life of someone who never stirs the pot. 

Critical Acting also requires creative and innovative concepts to implement these principles while at the same time not neglecting aspects of self-care and resilience.

“Just describing the world’s problems is not enough.”

On foot of discussions with colleagues on the need to address these issues, my studies for the Professional Diploma in Creativity and Innovation in Education, and finally successfully securing an Innovation Fellowship, I decided to devise a new elective module “Critical Acting” for PhD students from all over UCD. It was first taught in Trimester 1 of 2021-22 with the goal to address these issues and to convert the processes and results of critical thinking into creative and innovative action.

 Critical Acting consists of two classes per week, one of which I taught. In my class, students  discussed topical literature, and worked in groups on a final presentation project. The project asked students to “devise a strategy, process, activity or measure addressing / alleviating a problem PhD students in UCD experience.” Students were asked to use Design Thinking while working on this project. We also used creativity exercises I had learned in my Professional Diploma in Creativity and Innovation in Education at the Innovation Academy. 

In the second class of each week UCD colleagues from different disciplines and colleges who have a track record of “acting critically” themselves shared their experiences and fostered discussions with the students. Speakers included a former UCD branch chair of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, a former Students’ Union President, UCD’s specialist on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the founder of UCD’s equality studies and social justice programmes, an art historian engaging with decolonisation issues, a computer scientist and two medicine lecturers addressing fake news and conspiracy theories, among others. Through these talks, students encountered different stories and experiences as well as different personalities. It allowed students to get inspired in different ways while the first class of the module provided a thread tying everything together.

The groups developed a range of projects to support the PhD experience at UCD. One project, entitled NeighbourGoodFriends, proposed establishing mutual support groups of students in local neighbourhoods in the Dublin area. The network would help to integrate particularly new international PhD students more easily, allow them to get to know other PhD students beyond their own discipline, and undertake a range of different activities together. The groups would be led by facilitators (more advanced PhD students living in the same area) who are prepared for this role centrally (for example by the Students’ Union). The proposal was in part a reaction to a post-Covid world in which people spend more time and do more of their work at home.

A second project focuses on PhD students working with quantitative data which needs to be processed in time-consuming, non-automated ways. The project proposed the in-house development of a software allowing internet users to help in the assessment of data. The students drew inspiration from examples such as NASA who invites internet users to assess Hubble photographs and highlight new stellar phenomena that may otherwise go unnoticed for some time.

Another project sought to address, mainly through advocacy, the financial difficulties faced by non-Irish PhD students including the prohibition on spouses working in Ireland and the fee difference between EU and non-EU students and others. The projects reflect that all but one of the students taking the module were international. 

Carla Gummerson, the SU Graduate Officer, attended the final project presentations and agreed to explore avenues towards their realisation together with the students – particularly with regard to NeighbourGoodFriends.

Overall the module triggered a lot of engagement from students and directed it towards critical action on the basis of reflection, thus achieving its primary goal. The broad range of disciplines and approaches was also welcomed by the students. Further fine-tuning will be undertaken on the basis of feedback from the takers, particularly with regard to giving students more input into the structure and delivery of the module. The Fellowship was a fulfilling and successful experience and  strengthened my resolve to integrate creative and innovative methods into all my modules.