By Susan Carter

Roll out the old favourite, ‘for the purposes of this article, I am defining….’ I’m grappling with the chore of definition. One of the journal readers for a submission had suggested “maybe it would help with clarity if you defined ‘pedagogy.’” Well, yes, it would.

I know about definitions. You need to take care that what you write is accurate: not so broad that other quite different things would fall into your category, nor so tight that some legitimate things would be excluded. I added pedagogy definition to a list of six other things to do yesterday.

But no, it is not going to be a straightforward one quick digital dive affair. Usually as a hardened professional I am adept at pillaging material swiftly like a professional house-breaker—in strategically, grab quickly, no indecision, and out again. The other five things to be done yesterday are sitting untouched on my list, however, and I am much further away from producing my definition than I was when I settled at my desk yesterday morning.

I have found stacks of BOOKS on pedagogy, and critical pedagogy in particular. Most seem to be on our other campus or already out, so I am sitting expectantly on a stack of recalls and intercampus loans. Many of them are quite intriguing looking, with sparky titles that promise lively writing: pedagogy of difference, and critical pedagogy. Then there are articles whose text currently seems difficult to access electronically. Lots of recent ones, a symptom that this is a contested terrain. The contestation of recent interest is likely to slow me down even more. Instead of that slick house-breaker approach, this will be more like competing at a busy auction. Instead of the definition being one chore on a list, it has turned into one of those ongoing tasks that you nibble at for an hour or so each day over several weeks.

At the end of all my squirreling of different sources, I know I will write something simple and short. It will be likely to say ‘I do not engage with the debate over….’ It might say ‘I choose a broad definition as a working one for the overview process, and will use more specific terms to signal….’

I’m beginning to realise that the suggestion I should define pedagogy was a euphemism, too, that weirdly polite way academics tell you something is weak without using any negative words. For the purposes of their review, then, the term definition is not about carefully choosing words so the fence is drawn accurately with the right things inside and the right things kept outside. It meant go away and spend several weeks reading and thinking. You’ll have a better understanding then that will probably mean you radically improve the critical thought of this article. These academics can be awfully gentle even as they are being quite incisive.

But I wonder if you have any other advice on how to write a good definition that shows strong critical engagement (and, of course, as quickly and sweetly as possible)?