The pet-peeve language issue I’m going to look at in this post is a particular way of using the word “talent,” which isn’t really a metaphor per se but more of a quality or attribute that is nominalized and reified in ways that detach it from actual people, and their lives and work. I’ve discussed this briefly before in a post about international mobility, where I described “the extraction and objectification of ‘talent’ as something apart from those who might have it and use it, and transformation into a product available for sale.” But lately it seems like these expressions are popping up more regularly in the higher ed news articles I’m reading.
Another term that I hear often at the moment is “talent market”, and closely related to these is the expression “talent pool” (don’t go fishing in the shallow end!). We also see the related use of “brains” (brain drain, brain exchange) and in some cases, “minds” (“free trade in bright minds”). Here are a few examples culled from higher ed news articles:
- global competition for talent
- countries compete for the world’s top talent
- cultivating domestic talent
- race for the ‘best and brightest’
- attractive destination for foreign talent
- international students are seen as a fabulous talent pool for Canada
- tilting the talent balance
- the global brain race
- brain circulation
- a free market in minds
The underlying synecdoche – the one valued attribute standing in for the whole person – is reflected in expressions of an objectified quality that can be traded in an international market. With the market framing come the metaphors of competition, including war and sports imagery (“battle for brainpower”). In other examples (such as the media coverage of the first CERC awards) there are obvious parallels, including the use of hockey metaphors to describe the recruitment of international scientific leaders.
A number of discursive threads are enabled and connected by this framing of “talent”:
Talent as “natural”: The obsession with talent masks the obvious privilege it takes to have one’s gifts identified, nurtured, and brought to their full potential. Talent must be seen in order to exist, and resources are required for it to be visible; it has to be recognisable to those who seek it and within the systems that attach value to it. Like academic “merit”, this kind of talent is not inherent in people but constructed in large part through context.
Talent as a scarce (natural) resource: Framing talent as an object of exchange also seems to presuppose that the quest for “talent” (as with many other “natural resources”) is a zero-sum game. A “war for talent” becomes legitimate when we assume that talent is in limited supply, and our priorities shift to recruiting the “top talent” from other places. Hence there’s also a kind of fetishization of the “most talented” as objects of intense competition, or more accurately as a resource that must be ferreted out from its most obscure locations (diamonds in the rough!) and channelled to the most competitive institutions and nations: “The more countries and companies compete for talent, the better the chances that geniuses will be raked up from obscurity” (Economist).
Talent as economizable: The assumption that talent must be economized, or indeed is that which can be economized; whereas there are many things we could call “talent” that don’t fit this definition. If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve read something by Richard Florida or one of his acolytes, who have given the same treatment to “creativity” – for example in the 2005 book, The Flight of the Creative Class: The New Global Competition for Talent. In his widespread proselytizing, Florida has named “talent” as one of the factors in fostering a “creative class” environment (the proposed solution for boosting economic development). Similarly to the theorising of “human capital”, this is a way of seeing people primarily in terms of what they can contribute to the economy. And like Florida’s idea of creativity, talent is only recognized in the forms that contribute to economic life in particular ways.
Talent as mobile: An example of this is the language of a “free trade in minds”. Governments seek mobile talent as one of the (human) resources required to build a productive and skilled workforce. International students are a primary source of this, which is why all this ties in with the effort to “brand” Canada as a top location. While there’s an assumption that talent itself, like an aether, can drift freely across borders to the “best” or most competitive nation, the reality is that not all bodies are as mobile as they need to be to compete in this way. Brains don’t move across borders, people do – people with hopes, with problems, with families, with bodies that need care. Minds also don’t move as freely when people want a level of stability and security in their working and personal lives, or when they lack the resources or privilege to follow important opportunities.
All this becomes the logic used to make arguments about which policy solutions are the right ones. Weapons in this “war” for talent are the policies that governments can use to fine-tune the intake of new potential citizens – general immigration strategies but also more targeted policies designed to help with recruitment of the right people (such as the UK’s “exceptional talent” category and China’s “one thousand talents” program). Again and again we see the vacuous imperative to national economic “competitiveness” being invoked, but for what exactly are we competing?
What was for the HR managers an organizational phenomenon (see “talent management”) has become, at least in part thanks to the creative class gurus, positioned as a national problem that governments need to deal with through policy change. The rhetoric of talent is applied to immigration, to governance of competitive research funding, and to international post-secondary recruitment. International students, many of whom now see themselves as “cash cows” for financially needy universities, are also being viewed as a “talent pool” into which the nation can dip for its required quota of desirable immigrants.
You could argue that it’s obvious why economic theorists would see people in terms of their economic value. But focusing too much on this single factor is both alienating and obfuscating; it takes us away from a holistic understanding of the issues. Students, early career researchers, and other potential migrants aren’t merely the plugs that will stop up the supposed skills gap, and there are ethical problems with any argument that treats them as such.
Not only that, but the “talent market” is like all markets, an unequal and constructed one. So what are the costs of competing, and who can pay them? Would “talent” perhaps be less scarce if we tried developing it by dealing with inequities – looking at what holds people back – rather than trying actively to find the few, elite “best and brightest” elsewhere?
In a recent Chronicle Of Higher Ed article Dr. David M. Perry asked the question, “but does it count”? with regards to public engagement in academe. Perry argues that while there’s a perception that academics don’t communicate with non-expert publics, in fact they’re doing this kind of work all the time. What we really need, therefore, is a means of formal recognition for public work within the tenure and promotion system.
Like Perry (and many others), I’ve written about the issue of public engagement and the lack of recognition for it in academic promotions; I discussed the reasons why it’s hypocritical to ask young scholars to “engage” with broader publics, when clearly this kind of work does not contribute towards a scholarly career in the way that peer-reviewed articles do. If early-career researcher (ECR) workloads increase, they may then reasonably de-prioritize this kind of work since it adds few or no points to their academic scorecards. The work is even more risky for members of traditionally marginalized groups who already have difficulty gaining access to academic capital.
Here I’m going to return to the points I wrote about a few weeks ago, regarding “productivity”; I want to draw some attention to the connection between what we “produce” and aspects of academic work that encourage us to see ourselves in a particular way. For me this is part of an ongoing exploration of what factors affect our understanding of “knowledge work,” in particular the way it happens in universities. In this case, the right kind of self-governance means understanding that if a certain kind of work doesn’t “count” then we are not being “productive” when we do that work.
That’s why I’m more interested in the answer to a second, unasked question that’s implicit in “does it count?”: count for what? In most cases, it’s an academic job, one with some security and stability; so whether something counts towards tenure is the point, with all the implications this brings. This question of “what counts” – whether it’s articulated explicitly or operating as an underlying theme in academic conversation – reveals something about the ways in which academics’ decision-making is influenced by perception of what will be rewarded with advancement in the existing system.
All this probably sounds obvious, but as usual there’s the bigger picture to consider. The current competition for long-term academic jobs means that “to innovate in form means to risk one’s career” (Perry) and that future academics may become more conservative about the work they do, if that is what’s required to remain in the running for scarce positions. Even those who have faculty jobs must compete for research funding, and/or face some form of professional evaluation based on measurable criteria. With teaching, there is a parallel situation wherein precarious employment means that job assignments become more dependent on student evaluations. Making decisions about how we work is not merely dependent upon personal preferences, but also on our need to remain within the bounds of recognizable merit in a “meritocratic” institution.
At the Governing Academic Life conference in London, UK, last week, this context was the focus of the discussion as participants took time for a more detailed critical examination of the form and experience of contemporary academic work; speakers included Dr. Stephen Ball, Dr. Chris Newfield, Dr. Wendy Brown, Dr. Mitchell Dean and Dr. Richard Hall. While I wasn’t able to attend in person, the conference topic was directly relevant to what I’m writing and thinking about, so I followed along with the discussion on Twitter as much as I could.
One example that came up in the discussion was the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly the RAE), a framework and process of research assessment that determines the direction of HEFCE funding through grading “research output items” (e.g. books or articles). The “impact model”, or the assessment of the effects of research beyond academe, was a particular focus of debate.
This performance-based funding model, built on an instrumental notion of prestige, has been critiqued from a number of angles. For example, Dr. Andrew Oswald makes the point about scholarly conservatism when he argues that “People routinely talk in terms of journal labels rather than discoveries…That is a palpable sign of intellectual deterioration…if you design a Soviet-style planning system, you will get tractors.” Oswald argues that the REF discourages risky research and leads ECRs to focus on instrumental publishing rather than the kind of innovative work that might not check the REF’s boxes. This effect is not specific to the UK; in Canada, with no such formal system in place, Dr. Li-Shih Huang writes that she has “been bluntly asked to change [her] priorities by focusing on publishing only in high-impact journals”.
This example brings us back to the question not only of how academic life is governed, but how academics govern themselves. As I mentioned in my previous post on this issue, the conditions of academic work are also the conditions in which knowledge becomes authoritative and is communicated as such. Dr. David Perry argues in his article that “we…have a problem with how we define, count, and value many types of public engagement.” But what effect do we see from this process of having to define and count our work, and are we considering how this this may change what we can “know”?
I’ve had to think about my own position in this context, since I know I haven’t assessed myself based on how my work “counts”, and worse – I don’t really want to. The price to be paid there is exclusion from the system of academic prestige and from the institutions that value it. But just as “productivity” isn’t the same as getting things done, something can “count” within a system without it having meaningful effects otherwise. And it can matter elsewhere without signifying anything in this system: I can care about whether people read what I write, whether it prompted them to think about something differently, or whether someone else is drawing on my ideas and doing something interesting with them; those are some of my goals. But that’s not the same as the “impact factor” of a journal, or the number of citations an author or paper receives.
Based on the Governing Academic Life conference tweets, it seems that there was also discussion about whether there’s a way to appropriate or change the tools and norms that feel as if they work “against” us (or against the kind of knowledge we want to create). How can scholars continue to work in academe but also challenge its norms on an ongoing basis? This is a question about cultural absorption but also one about the limits of professional validation and advancement. In other words, if challenging the system doesn’t allow you to enter into and progress in an academic career, then how will those who want change find a way to stay and make it happen?
We can’t limit our critiques to those that are acceptable within the existing frames. Yet at the same time, as anyone in a marginal position in academe knows, trying to make change takes a lot of time and (emotional) energy; it can drain you to the point where you can’t do the work that…“counts”. So then what? – you’re discounted.
I was thinking about this issue last year when I wrote a post on academic disciplines and what happens when critical work on the university becomes formalized into its own “field” within academe. Formalization can only happen in this way if it’s sanctioned by people who have already achieved success on traditional academic terms. It also leads to further entrenchment of the work within regular professionalization. So how can we effect the change we speak about so often, when its form is being imagined within these restraints? Are there examples can we see outside the institution that might help with the task?
Because my research is about institutional change and how it looks and happens at different levels, I’m interested in these questions of individuals’ self-governance and its relationship to academic structures and norms. The problem of whether work will “count” for advancement within an academic career is important because it tells us what kind of work will likely be prioritized by successful academics, which in turn has an effect on others’ (future) careers and on PhD education and mentoring – and on knowledge.
All these things will shape the academe of the future; change happens not just through grand external “disruptions” and/or engineered unbundling but also through small actions and decisions – and the resistance – made by people every day. Asking how those things occur, and how they’re affected by context, is another step towards figuring out what kind of academic life we’ll have in the future and what will “count” towards it.
It’s not all that often that we see a case study in Canadian university crisis communications and in particular, where a crisis happens because of a conflict involving fundamental ideas about what universities are for and how they should be governed. That’s one way to look at the recent events at the University of Saskatchewan, where actions by the administration have brought unwanted international attention to the university, sparking a nationwide debate about the nature of academic freedom, administrative and professorial rights and responsibilities, and university politics and funding.
For those who missed out, the most visible event in the timeline is the firing of professor Robert Buckingham (on May 14), who was the dean of the university’s school of public health. Dr. Buckingham was dismissed and escorted off campus by security personnel, and told not to return. This happened less than 24 hours after Dr. Buckingham circulated a letter titled “The silence of the deans” in which he described the senior administration’s attempts to shut down criticism of the university’s strategic planning process, TransformUS.
In the letter, which Dr. Buckingham sent to the premier of Saskatchewan and to the NDP opposition, he describes being instructed by the president and the provost to “support university messaging.” This was a problem for Dr. Buckingham because the school of public health had recently earned APHEA accreditation for its Masters of public health program; he argued that the changes planned by the administration would require re-assessment, and as such the school might lose its accreditation. Along with his open letter, Dr. Buckingham attached documents including an email from the provost requesting that he not discuss the accreditation issues in public.
Dr. Buckingham’s dismissal and the resultant public outrage led to a chain of events that included an apology from President Ilene Busch-Vishniac and the rapid reinstatement of Dr. Buckingham to a faculty position (though not to his role as dean) on May 15; the resignation of provost Brett Fairbairn and an emergency meeting of the board of governors on May 19; a major student rally on May 20, and ultimately the board’s decision to fire Dr. Busch-Vishniac on May 21.
Strategic planning in universities and the Dickeson model
While Dr. Buckingham’s specific complaint was about changes to the school of public health, the larger point (one echoed loudly on social media) was clearly a criticism of the strategic planning exercise overall. It’s important to point out that when strategic planning happens at universities, it almost always generates or provokes conflict and resistance. Not only that, but the problems are often expressed along particular lines that reveal a lot about the way that governance styles (especially academic vs. managerial) come into conflict in universities. Bearing this in mind, it’s clear that what the U of S experienced was a “smouldering crisis”, an internal one that gathered heat over time and eventually was sparked into a conflagration by Dr. Buckingham’s dismissal – it was a catalyst rather than a cause.
While strategic planning in general brings strife, the specific model being used by the U of S – Robert Dickeson’s program prioritization process (PPP) – is one that’s been a target of recent critiques as it’s been taken up at more universities in Canada (including Guelph, Brock, Nipissing, and Laurier).
The model is designed to deal with funding cuts by reducing university expenditures through “reallocation” of resources. As outlined in his book Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services, Dr. Dickeson’s argument is that if cuts must be made for institutional sustainability, there’s no sense in penalizing all organizational units equally. Thus the organization’s internal units (both academic and non-academic) are required to self-assess within a specified framework, such that the university can make informed sacrifices while maintaining quality in select areas of strength. Dr. Dickeson’s model is a kind of internal differentiation – and it’s no coincidence that there are parallels happening at different levels of governance.
Instead of supporting weaker areas so they can improve, these areas have resources reduced so that targeted programs can prosper; the internal assessment is what guides these decisions. Funding goes from an assumed rising tide that lifts all boats, to a zero-sum institutional game in which departments must prove their “excellence” and relevance to the university’s unique mission. Dr. Dickeson himself points out that the “egalitarian” nature of academe means this kind of ranking exercise goes against the grain of the institutional culture, wherein collective governance by faculty and equal treatment of the disciplines are ideals. Universities, in turn, aren’t designed to shrink when resources dry up, so any reduction in funding is bound to cause pain.
Communication and the university – crisis and strategy
Saskatchewan is a unique example of a university crisis wherein the role of communication in governance is clear for all to see. I’ve argued in the past that universities’ communication strategies are often based on the assumption of control and boundary policing. Rarely does a conflict rapidly traverse the communicative boundaries of the university in the way this incident has; within 48 hours of Dr. Buckingham distributing his letter, he had been fired and re-hired; within 10 days, both the president and the provost were out of the picture altogether. Such drama is even more likely to make the news because universities aren’t known publicly for their internal strife (ironically enough!).
Communication has played a direct part in all aspects of this crisis. News of the university’s swift and extreme reaction to Dr. Buckingham’s letter was fed directly into online media, where the outrage was amplified as it spread through networks. The letter was circulated quickly in part because it was discussed during the Saskatchewan legislature’s question period, tweeted about by the NDP, and then covered by the StarPhoenix the same day (May 13). It also served as a press release full of punchy, critical statements that could be (and were) easily quoted by the media. On Twitter, existing hashtags (such as #USask and #TransformUS) were appropriated and put to use, while the @USask handle received direct “feedback” as the tweeting public responded to the news.
Another document that circulated widely was the letter from provost Brett Fairbairn to Robert Buckingham, informing him of his dismissal. No amount of official equivocation could dispel the force of a letter in which Dr. Buckingham is told that both pay and benefits will be cut off (and which shows the provost’s signature at the bottom). On May 15, Dr. Fairbairn also defended the restructuring decision and dismissed the critiques expressed in Dr. Buckingham’s letter.
During this period the university’s president, Ilene Busch-Vishniac, took a good deal of direct criticism and hardly helped her own cause by committing several PR gaffes. For example when questioned in a CBC radio interview on the evening of May 15, she dismissed the decision-making process as “complicated” and attempted to shift the blame onto a group – including HR and university lawyers – rather than taking it on herself as leader. She also subsequently stated publicly that she had no intention of resigning. When asked when she had realised there was a problem, Dr. Busch-Vishniac responded: “at the point that…I was talking with everybody and said wait a minute, we did what just now?”
Based on what I’ve described, I think it’s fair to assume that the U of Saskatchewan administration was unprepared for a crisis – particularly one that was generated through weak internal decision-making (as opposed to one that was beyond the organization’s control), and facilitated by social media. The situation revealed a serious problem with decision-making, which was not ameliorated by Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s vaguely robotic assurances that “we will make sure that we fix whatever went wrong, and that it will never happen again.”
No matter what actions are taken next, the University of Saskatchewan has already projected an image of a tense, top-down and low-trust organizational climate, wherein there is a lack of consensus on – indeed, active resistance to – a program of internal change. Dr. Buckingham’s firing was not merely one bad decision; it was the latest (and possibly the culminating) incident in a flawed process that reflects larger, ongoing problems with organizational culture and power dynamics. This means not just strategic planning, but the process of organizational becoming, the ongoing making and re-making of the organizational culture that happens over a much longer period. What we’ve seen is a point where this becomes visible in a way that reflects back negatively on the institution.
As a result, the U of S has also incurred serious reputational damage. Public airing of these problems is a communications failure for the university, and it’s also an opportunity for critics to bring attention to events at the U of S and to connect these to broader themes of under-funding, corporatised governance, and academic freedom.
In the reaction to Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s firing, many critics have drawn on the close association between the president and the strategic plan, TransformUS; there’s been a lot of hope expressed that the plan would end with her departure. But while it’s often the case that the president becomes a synecdoche for the strategic plan (so close is the association between them), it’s very unlikely that the TransformUS plan will be abandoned after so many months of development, or that a new president would be chosen without some guarantee of making the plan work. However, Dr. Busch-Vishniac’s interim replacement, the well-liked Dr. Gordon Barnhart, has said that the plan will be reviewed (and its pace slowed). There will be no public inquiry into Dr. Buckingham’s firing and he will not be reinstated as dean.
The University of Saskatchewan will take a long time to shake off the events of the past month or so. Other institutions will consider as an example (not one to follow) the way U of S mis-handled its internal problems and thus generated a much wider, public debate about models of university governance and academic freedom. Yet given the tensions and crises that continue to emerge both from strategic planning and from the overlapping roles and conflicting loyalties for faculty and administrators, I think this is a conversation we really needed to have, and it’s one that should continue – as difficult as it may be.
There’s nothing like the perspective of distance to bring murky issues into focus. I was able to re-discover this recently when I (unexpectedly) ended up spending two weeks in New Zealand, where I travelled on short notice to attend my father’s funeral, then visited extended family afterwards.
The 36 hours preceding the trip were a stressful whirlwind of organization – finding a plane ticket, organizing a new passport, and scheduling – and ultimately I made it to my destination with only 3 ½ hours to spare. But once I arrived, I was fairly quick to “disconnect”. For me, New Zealand is a happily distracting environment full of familiar sights and sounds and smells (umbrella-like ponga ferns; chatter of tui; the distinctive tang of sulphur and seasalt). Since I don’t get much time either at home or with family, I wanted to enjoy it while I could.
In spite of the disconnection, I still didn’t feel cut off. It was more like I’d entered a parallel dimension through which events that would normally be of significance to me were made visible only via my periodic glances at social media networks. Even though I hadn’t lost access and could still participate on the same terms, Twitter (and Internet conversations in general) became more like a spectacle viewed from afar, and the separation was caused not only by time and space but also by immediate events.
One morning as I was watching the tweets roll down the page, I saw someone share a link to a blog post about how to write “productively”. In the moment it struck me that every time I see these kinds of posts, I feel a pang of guilt that I am not particularly “productive” in comparison to so many others I know. Not only do I write slowly, I also read slowly. It’s not an issue of comprehension, but one of constant cognitive overload, a sense of “too much” that can be hard to explain or tame. Of course I have strategies to deal with this, but I’m still well aware of how much it slows me down.
As for the trained guilt reaction: it’s no coincidence and it highlights a couple of things, one of which is the comparative aspect of (ongoing) evaluation. If I know I’ll always be compared to other people, that this will be the context of my work, then I begin to compare myself to them. For those trying to gain a foothold in academic work, self-regulation in a competitive environment means knowing we can and should always be doing more – “producing” more – in order to compete with others for scarce resources (such as long-term academic positions).
The point about the concept of “productivity” is that it isn’t merely about getting things done, or doing a lot. Most of us want to do things in life; we might want to create what doesn’t yet exist, or perhaps demonstrate how what is now could or should be changed for the better. Many of us have goals and aspirations, ambitions we want to fulfill, and we’re willing to work hard to make that happen.
But productivity, as a goal, is about governance of a particular type. As I’ve said repeatedly in previous posts, I pay a lot of attention to language and to the roots (etymological, historical, cultural) of the words we so often take for granted. Productivity isn’t just about making things, it’s a concept that’s part of a larger system; it’s an economic concept, one that denotes a relationship between inputs and outputs. This is how efficiency is measured, so to be put to use “productivity” needs to be demonstrated in terms that work for the model of governance being used.
I think there is a problem with taking at face value a term that brings this kind of focus to outputs over process. And while a critique of the use of “productivity” as a concept applied to academic work (and “creative”) work more broadly) is not a direct critique of the culture of over-work and “busyness” per se, it relates to that directly. It’s not a call for everyone to do less. Similarly, rejecting “productivity” as a concept is not at all the same as being lazy or lacking ambition. It doesn’t mean we should do nothing, it just means we should think about the context of doing and the rationales we’re providing ourselves for the work in which we engage.
With regards to the demand for productivity, academe is no different from other sectors of the workforce, but the nature of the work involved means that the effects are different. This points to the question of whether we can govern creativity, or work that involves a creative (thought) process, with managerial logic wherein measurable outputs are the focus. Can we systematize what is so frequently unpredictable? Can ideas be counted? What are the consequences of applying a Taylorist breakdown of work into units of time that are mapped on to specific tasks in a way that enables work to be divided, fragmented, fine-tuned for a particular kind of efficiency?
The reason I keep circling back to the idea that we must “waste time to save time” is that the process can’t always be mapped easily from the outcome. What is it that fills in the gaps between those building blocks of tangible tasks and time? What about the time it took to learn to write, the time it takes to keep learning and honing and becoming as researchers, writers, scientists, teachers, skilled at what we do? What about the time that we need not just to read but to think about what we’ve read and seen and experienced, to understand and then make the deeper connections that are necessary for engagement with knowledge? The concern about time and “production” can be internalized to the point where we strive to find ways of making our progress visible. But for much of what we do, this may not be possible.
If academic work is about knowledge, and we come to apply the concept of “productivity” to this work without questioning the implications, then what are we saying about how knowledge happens – and the nature of knowledge itself? The epistemological question flows from the question of governance. If we govern universities on the same terms that we manage factories, we change our relationship to knowledge and also the nature of what we “know”.
As “knowledge workers” we also change ourselves, and our relationship to what we do. Of course it’s possible to divide our time into manageable units, and perform our work accordingly – to act as we’re encouraged to act, as the production line of knowledge. We may come to accept that accounting for ourselves means counting our selves, in an institutional culture where work is an identity and a way of life; and it will be in some ways easier to accept these things and work with them, especially in the current competitive academic job market. To be non-compliant at the early stages of one’s career is to take on a personal risk, the outcomes of which are validated (one way or the other; “maverick” or “failure”) by a meritocratic culture.
My concern is that what we’ll produce are merely the words required to feed the machine of academic professionalization and promotion; and my point is not really about what we “produce” but why we do it, what motivates us, by what logic we are operating when we work.
To circle back to perspective, for obvious reasons I was thinking about these things at the same time that I was thinking about my father, talking to people he knew, and hearing stories about things he did. Based on what I’d known of him and what others said, I’m pretty sure he was never striving to be “productive” – but he was always building or fixing something, or talking to someone, or figuring something out. He was happy with what he had, and part of that was what he did (for himself and for others).
And I saw how it was ridiculous that I should feel even a twinge of guilt about my lack of “productivity”: at a time when there could be no expectation, the inner voice was so well-trained that it simply kept speaking. But we all need the voice to be silent, in the same way that we need compassion for ourselves before we can tend to others. You can’t work to make a change if your own (metaphorical) back is broken, which can happen if you just keep piling on the load. I sometimes think of Bilbo Baggins feeling “like butter scraped over too much bread”, a phrase that reminds me of the need to defend some boundaries in order to cross others.
So I didn’t “produce” anything over the past few weeks. I spent over 55 hours either waiting in airports or on flights, feeling tired and claustrophobic. I also walked on beaches and alongside rivers and by rural roads; I heard and saw favourite birds and trees and mountains. I was reminded of why my father loved New Zealand and felt thankful, as always, for the gift of part of a lifetime there; what better inheritance could I ask for? And I suspect all this was productive, and I didn’t write a word.
On March 16, Steve Paikin – the host of the TVOntario’s popular current affairs show “The Agenda” – shared a blog post titled “Where are all the female guests?”. In it, he expressed concern about the ongoing lack of gender parity among the show’s guests, which has led to male-dominated panel discussions. The main question Paikin poses is, “Why, oh why, do we have such a tough time getting female guests on our program?”
I’m always happy to see a discussion about women’s (lack of) representation among “experts” in the media. But as Kirstine Stewart of Twitter Canada commented: “[I] Was hopeful. Then I read the blog.” In it, Paikin takes an opportunity that could have been used to ask deeper questions about the gendered nature of expertise (for example) – and turns it into a throw-up-your-hands, stereotype-reinforcing missive on the “excuses” women make for not wanting to heed the call and appear on a TV show. Indeed, the post answers its own question so well that it would have worked better as satire, but no such luck.
In spite (or in fact because) of its defensively self-righteous tone, Paikin’s piece points us to something important in the rhetoric about women’s lack of visibility as experts in the media and elsewhere: the focus is usually on women’s choices, and/or on their inherent merit as experts. We then see at least two “logical” explanations for women’s relative absence from the highest positions in our institutional and social hierarchies: either they made choices that weren’t conducive to the pursuit of high-impact careers, or they simply lacked the merit to pursue those careers. Then again according to Paikin, it might just be a genetic flaw: “we’ve [...] discovered there also seems to be something in women’s DNA that makes them harder to book.”
Let’s take a look at the “choices” women make that cause Paikin and his TVO colleagues so much difficulty.
First, Paikin argues that “no man will ever say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, I’m taking care of my kids.” The man will find someone to take care of his kids so he can appear on a TV show. Women use that excuse on us all the time” (emphasis added). So apparently, we can comfortably ignore the entrenched, gendered inequalities in domestic work and especially in child care. While it’s true that men have been taking on more parenting responsibilities over time, the ongoing, underlying assumption – a systemic one, as described in this excellent post by Sarah Mann – is that women are responsible for child care. So given the logistics involved, as well as cultural and relational pressures and expectations, how can this be described as an “excuse”?
The post continues: “No man will say, “Sorry, can’t do your show tonight, my roots are showing.” I’m serious. We get that as an excuse […] But only from women.” The glaring omission here? There’s no mention of the way that women politicians, journalists, activists, professors, and other public figures are subjected to public judgement based on their looks (and sexuality), as opposed to the work they do. This is what Sarah Mann describes as a “steaming pile of double standards related to beauty”, and it’s pervasive. One recent example is that of British scholar Mary Beard, who has faced much commentary on her looks and was a target for misogynistic abuse after she commented on immigration issues. Beard said the experience “would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public, contributing to political debate.” If that’s not serious, then what is?
Paikin also states: “No man will say, “Sorry can’t do your show tonight, I’m not an expert in that particular aspect of the story.” They’ll get up to speed on the issue and come on. Women beg off.” Research has indeed indicated that women are less keen to speak to an area beyond their immediate expertise, but that might have something to do with the way women’s expertise is constantly questioned and challenged in overt and irrelevant ways (for example…by criticizing their looks). Of course, even if you are a female expert, you can still be dismissed as a “token” presence. That’s what happened to scientists Hiranya Peiris and Maggie Aderin-Pocock after they appeared as a guests on a TV show discussing a crucial new development in astrophysics.
Speaking of physics, there’s yet another issue here for “The Agenda”, which is that there aren’t enough women experts in the areas being discussed. For example, “if we’re doing a debate on economics, 90% of economists are men. So already you’re fishing in a lake where the odds are stacked against you.” So how about having a discussion about why women continue to pursue certain careers (and academic areas) rather than others – or why those careers so often involve lower-status, lower-wage, and/or precarious employment?
This is probably familiar territory for anyone who’s aware of the lack of women in the STEM disciplines. And the same issue is reflected within academe more broadly: women may be more visible at lower levels in the professional hierarchy, but there are too few rising to the highest positions of leadership. Women still face everyday sexism in the workplace, and the “outcomes” they achieve (or don’t achieve) are affected by a long process involving both overt and unconscious discrimination in practice. Gender also intersects and interacts with other factors such as race, age, social class, sexuality, and disability. So how much does this experience affect a person’s “merit”, and how might it dampen their enthusiasm, or reduce their opportunities for being a public expert?
Paikin’s post frames women’s “excuses” from not appearing on the show as individual choices that prevent “The Agenda” from providing a gender balance among the show’s guests. What this approach ignores is the context in which those choices are made. As Jeet Heer noted on Twitter, this “is a classic example of taking real social/structural problems and personalizing them as character flaws.” The reasons that women themselves provide are dismissed as trivial: “despite our commitment, despite our efforts, despite EVERYTHING…we get the same old excuses.”
Paikin also responded to one critic, “[I] never told anyone to “man up.” the whole damned post is about finding solutions.” But what other message are we likely to receive when we see a litany of comparison in which “no man would ever” is the refrain? One where acting like a man (as if all men act the same way!) is clearly the preferred strategy, and where men are held up as the standard against which women’s actions and decisions are assessed? What solutions are we likely to come up with, based on these assumptions – other than “man up”?
It’s not that Paikin is wrong to point out a gender gap – of course not. This isn’t about whether he and his colleagues are “trying hard enough” or not; and I’ve tried to explain here, it’s about the way the problem’s being framed. Paikin’s arguments just can’t get past the descriptive notion of “choices” to the point of addressing the structural and cultural issues that inform them. We need to go beyond the argument that “women just don’t like the attention”, that they “just aren’t confident enough”. The question is not what do women say, but why are they still saying it? The Agenda would be a great platform for that discussion and based on the Twitter reaction to Paikin’s comments, there are plenty of women who’d be willing to step up and participate. Now let’s see if they’re invited.
Recently the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) released a report (PDF) on a study “designed to measure the teaching loads of faculty members in the Ontario university system and the relationship of this variable to others, such as research output and salary.” The study, comprising 10 of Ontario’s 20 publicly funded universities, looked at faculty teaching in three disciplines (economics, chemistry and philosophy). Results were compared separately for each discipline and institution, as was teaching activity at different levels (assistant, associate and full professor). The study is framed in these terms: “the rationale for analyzing teaching loads was to inform the discussion about opportunities for greater differentiation and productivity in the Ontario university system.” It seems that a goal was to show whether an uneven spread in teaching exists, and to highlight where and how teaching loads could be increased to improve “productivity.”
As is clear from the some of the responses it’s received, this study prods at a sore spot (the quest to translate faculty work into measurable units) with what seems like a blunt instrument – but why is that the case? In this post, rather than succinctly analyze the methodology or the policy implications I want to make a few comments about the context of this paper, and what this context tells us about its construction, its interpretation and its use. Firstly:
Measurement of what? Alex Usher pointed out on Twitter that the study is not designed to measure “how much” research professors do, but merely whether they are “research-active” at all, in comparison to how many courses they are teaching. Even this measure leaves out all activity other than tri-council grants and peer-reviewed journal articles. There’s also (as critics have pointed out) no attempt to show anything other than the number of courses taught, so the differing amount of work per course is left out entirely, as are other non-course related activities that provide support for student learning. Isn’t it important to make a distinction between number of classes taught, and actual time used in teaching work?
Massification and public opinion. The focus on dealing with teaching “load” highlights one of the ongoing problems of massification. One reason that expansion of enrolments is a political issue is because more people now have personal experience with the university; they are therefore more likely to have stakes in the discussion and in its material outcomes. We see an example of this when Margaret Wente in her column plays for populism by referencing what parents expect from universities, i.e. that their primary role is to teach students. If most people see universities as teaching-focussed institutions, this expectation must be addressed and it becomes more visible in rhetorical and political strategy. Hence we also see the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations and the Council of Ontario Universities developing communications campaigns that seek to change public perceptions through highlighting the value of university research. Which also brings us conveniently to the next issue:
The professional prioritization of research in academe. Do we have a problem with an unequal spread of “teaching loads?” If we do, then surely part of the issue is that teaching is seen as a “load” to begin with. When we consider what is most valued in the academic career ladder, unfortunately this makes sense. While the public expects teaching to be valued, research is what still generates the most prestige, as is clear from the hierarchies and divisions of labour in academic work. This is why it’s so interesting that the Ontario government’s differentiation discussion often seems to operate within a kind of vacuum where teaching and research are seen as “different but equal” in the academic economy.
Missing data: In this Maclean’s article, we’re told that this is the “best [HEQCO] could do with the data available.” That highlights the old problem that many higher ed researchers in Canada could tell you about: we so often just don’t have any numbers to work with. But in this case, HEQCO’s paper states that university administrations do have much more detailed data, but that it’s not publicly available. The implication is that institutions aren’t willing to share the numbers, and that if they would provide the information in detail, the government could do a better job of policymaking. So are universities refusing to participate in this policy-making process, and if so, why is that the case?
Calculating knowledge. Admittedly my bias is that I do qualitative research, partly because I think it’s important to question where numbers come from and what they actually tell us. The HEQCO report provides an interesting example wherein what can’t be measured, is not “seen” even though it may be acknowledged as absent: “We recognize that faculty members have other teaching responsibilities besides credit courses, such as unassigned courses, preparing for lectures, office hours, student advisement, and undergraduate and graduate student supervision. Information on these activities is not publicly available and rarely even measured, and is therefore not included in our construction of faculty workload.”
So there’s a lot missing. But even if there weren’t, what does “productivity” mean in the context of university teaching, and can all of the contributing factors be captured in an ever-widening net of numbers? This is not the goal of HEQCO’s report, but I think it’s an important question to ask in the face of the possible assumption that “more (quantitative) data” would be the answer to the problems highlighted in this study. There are things that can’t be shown with “more data;” what are they and what will count as data? I think there’s a connection here to the current and growing obsession with “big data” as the answer to big problems, including of course the lack of efficiency of the learning process.
In a case like this where so much information is not available, we get a limited understanding of what’s going on. The resulting image of “productivity” also reminds me of this excellent post by Kate Bowles wherein she discusses the unseen, unappreciated work that is necessary for a university to be “productive” in the ways that can be measured and slotted into existing models. This is a qualitative gap I think we should address. HEQCO’s study is not disingenuous – its limitations are pretty thoroughly described throughout – but we’re still presented with specific recommendations, such as having research-inactive faculty teach 50 percent more courses.
I think an important question is how much influence this kind of research has on PSE policy, given the amount of data (both quantitative and qualitative) that aren’t included. The self-affirming logic of the various differentiation reports has the air of a foregone conclusion; since Ontario’s universities are already differentiated, then it’s “natural” for government policy to reflect that fact and to create greater efficiencies by doing so. Provision of data is framed as an opportunity for participation in governance, but for universities, handing over more detailed information may be perceived as a loss of autonomy in decision-making. This is the context of governance in which HEQCO’s report was produced, and it will be interesting to see if the research ends up being revised and expanded (as I’d say it needs to be), or if there’s any attempt to implement the recommendations.
Some of you may have noticed that I tend to pay a lot of attention to university communications, both internal and external. It’s partly because this is one of the things I’ve researched (including for my Master’s thesis and my dissertation project); I also have a degree in communication studies and I’ve done some communications work myself, so I always find it interesting to see what approaches are being used.
That being said, I’ve noticed recently that there’s an interesting trend in Ontario postsecondary education marketing and branding, not just with the universities but also with associated higher education organizations. The strategies in a number of recent communications campaigns tend to involve inviting/soliciting members of a target group or groups – usually students – to participate in a contest. There is a prize offered, which could be a monetary reward, or a break on tuition fees, or perhaps a gadget such as an iPod. The winners also receive attention through the media campaign associated with the contest, and in an economy where attention is expected to translate into opportunities, this is seen as a reward in itself.
To highlight some examples: McMaster (My Day At Mac) ran a campaign inviting students to create content with their phones (e.g. videos) and submit these as representative of something essential or typical about the institution. I mentioned in a previous post the COU contest involving student-generated mental health social media plans; last month the COU also used a “virtual scavenger hunt” as part of their public outreach designed to bring attention to research in Ontario’s universities. York University has been running an ongoing campaign called “My Time” in which students submit “visions” of their own futures, with the winners appearing on promotional posters/images; and a recent contest from OCUFA involves students submitting videos wherein they talk about how they’ve been influenced by professors’ research, then encourage friends to vote for their video (thus increasing “likes” on Facebook and views on YouTube).
These strategies are partly about using the “we let you speak for us” approach, and in the current context it makes a lot of sense. There’s a lack of trust in highly processed organizational communication, which is seen as just another official “line” from the PR office, carefully designed to promote and persuade. Where universities in particular are not necessarily high-trust organizations (especially when it comes to communication), this suspicion is even more pronounced. Participation can also becomes something that students can point to as an achievement; it becomes part of their individual profile or “brand.”
But the need to reach audiences through “authenticity” poses a challenge, because it pits communicative control against the sense of realness that’s supposed to draw in an audience and encourage them to engage. Another complication is the unfolding context of social media, in which a desired level or type of control is seriously hindered by the possibility of audience spontaneity (including satire, derailment and abuse).
It could be argued that, particularly at universities, this kind of strategy gives students a “voice.” But hopefully students’ voices don’t have to be channelled through institutionally-sanctioned communication in order to be heard: while a contest attracts participants and creates a positive connection between them and the organization, it’s also a publicity project and it allows the organization to screen communicative content through the application process.
York’s “My time” provides a striking example. The focus is on a series of smoothly attractive black-and-white photographs overlaid with text that reveals students’ “visions” of what they will be doing in 15 or 20 years. The winner receives a year’s free tuition, with other prizes awarded to the runners-up. In this case, students not only provide the content: they are the content, and possibility is the product being sold, though it is framed as certainty (using phrasing like “I will” rather than “I want to”, for example). The message being sent is about the kinds of students York attracts and wants to attract, but at the same time of course, only selected students are allowed to do the representing. The campaign has since been expanded to include images of alumni and faculty.
Does a contest-based campaign work? I can only assume the metrics say “yes”, since these strategies are being employed by so many organizations, and since York’s efforts (for example) have now won an award. Such communication is produced within a larger context of increased marketization of (and consumerism in) university education; the Ontario government’s differentiation agenda; and the rising pressure to show the “value” of what universities do. All these factors contribute to the ways in which universities and other education-related organizations try to project and promote images of themselves, their members, and the work involved in research, teaching and learning.
When I was about 20 I made the decision to quit pursuing a career doing the thing I’d been best at all my life. Some of you might be surprised to know that I was “supposed” to be an artist. I was better at art – drawing, building and sculpting, photography – than I was at anything else, and I was usually better at it than anyone around me. Of course that changed when I started my BFA, but I was still very good at it and would have been much better if I’d felt the motivation to perform in the way I was supposed to. But I didn’t feel it, and I didn’t like the performance (which was far more than just “artistic”), and it meant that I had to start questioning “why not?”. I knew I had to make a decision before I went too far down that track, narrowing my options to the point where it would be difficult to start something else, and investing a lot of time that could be better used elsewhere.
In making that decision, I went with my “gut feeling”, as it were. I didn’t have a plan, and I didn’t know what would come next. But over time I realised the feeling was grounded in some very practical knowledge both of myself and of the kind of career I’d be pursuing if I continued. But it was still hard, because leaving all that behind meant abandoning not just a career path but also a version of the person I was supposed to be, based on everything I knew about myself up to that point.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve finally had time to read through some of the many posts written by academics who’ve decided to leave academe. The genre’s been given the label “Quit Lit”, and as it’s expanded, several of the posts have garnered significant attention and provoked much debate about who gets to have a faculty career and why.
So what is it about academe that demands these kinds of posts, as public declarations of intent?
They function as correctives, and often as confessions, too. The correction being made is usually one about how leaving an academic career is in fact a decision or a choice (and not usually an easy one – based on context), not simply an outcome of one’s lack of capacity or tenacity or merit. Not only that but the posts are statements about identity, choice, and control, even when they are full of the anger and grief and self-doubt that many people feel when they depart.
Lots of others have pointed this out, but it’s worth emphasizing that academic culture encourages us to see professional identity as personal identity – and thus to see “work” as “life”. What are you left with, then, when you walk away from the work? This has also been questioned through the recent criticisms of the idea of “do what you love”, which is in some ways the epitome of the rhetoric around higher education careers.
It’s not just those blog posts that get me thinking, nor even the context to which they so regularly refer – one where we know very few PhDs move into full-time permanent faculty positions. Those things are on my mind a lot anyway, because the research I do is about higher education, and I consider that an advantage when it comes to understanding the context in which I’d be seeking a career. Each time I sat down to read something research-related, I knew I was also looking at the potential conditions of my future work.
In spite of that knowledge, and in spite of what many people already know are the adverse conditions for creating an academic career, what really surprises me is the response that I still see when I tell people I made the decision not to apply for faculty positions (and that I decided quite a while ago). For every reason I provide, a “solution” is bounced back at me. For every hesitation I express, someone else is there to tell me not to think twice.
Every decision has its reasons, yet somehow my reasoning on this issue is always in question. This is extremely frustrating considering the time and effort involved in making a “realistic” assessment of my own strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, with consideration of the resources available to me, and of course the positions that may or may not open up in the future. It wasn’t easy, but I wanted to face those facts. I’ve also tried to pay attention to what day-to-day faculty work actually looks like, and I’ve thought about whether I’d be happy and competent at doing that work in the context in which it currently happens.
If we think again about that conflation of academe with a specific identity that becomes our “lives”, then it makes more sense that the decision to leave elicits such a personal reaction from other academics: it’s because there’s the assumption that we’re making a judgement or moral pronouncement about other people’s choices. I think this is also why, in many of the blog posts that I’ve read on this topic, the authors emphasize that they haven’t changed as people – they’re still scientists, teachers, scholars, but they may no longer be doing those things within a context recognized as “academic”; therefore they become “unrecognizable” as scholars.
I’d love to be able to believe that academe has the right job for me, right now – because then at least I’d know what to do next, what options are on the table, and where I fit in the grand scheme of professional “value”. In my own case, this isn’t about giving up on some ideal life or role; it’s about bearing in mind, constantly, that the job I may have imagined or desired doesn’t really exist and that I can’t pretend it does. While the academic path may look clear enough, each of us has to consider what sacrifices we’re willing and able to make to travel along it, and those sacrifices are (like the privileges) unevenly distributed and becoming more so over time. That context is not a choice. I also feel a sense of urgency in that there are limits to my time and energy, and I want to do as much as possible within those limits.
At this point, long after having come to these conclusions, what disturbs me most is that it feels like there’s an underlying assumption of “wasted” potential if one don’t follow a particular path. But as art has already taught me, I shouldn’t worry about wasting anything because I’ll still have what I always did. I’m still doing photography (and even getting paid for it), and most importantly those photos bring pleasure to me and to others, which isn’t something I ever would have predicted when I was 20. I can still pursue the goal of writing, researching, and in general doing something that matters to me and pays the rent. There will be limitations there, too, but that’s the case with any career, including an academic one with the notoriously intense competition for jobs and the heavy workload for aspiring and junior scholars.
This post, then, isn’t about “quitting”. Doing an advanced degree doesn’t mean you have only one career path and anything else involves “quitting” or worse, “failure”. In my case, you can’t “quit” something so specific when you weren’t really aiming for it in the first place. My decision may have been easier because I’d done it before – I walked away from something that was supposed to be the focus of my life, and I got through it. Maybe this time it was that I knew all along I didn’t start a PhD specifically to become a professor, so I was always open to multiple options. I just didn’t know what they might be (and I’m still finding out).
Returning to the “Quit Lit”, it’s still often the case that there’s a silence in the space where PhDs feel compelled, or make the choice, to leave the well-marked path to professional success in academe. The “Quit Lit” seeks to fill that silence with something other than the assumption of failure, one that’s perpetuated in the meritocratic culture of academe (where incredibly smart, capable people must keep insisting, “I was good enough”). When others question the fact that I don’t see academe as the place for me, I think of that culture and how it shapes people’s perceptions of “other” work. If the part of the answer here is to make those “other” paths and choices more visible, possible, and acceptable as “success”, then I’m happy to contribute to that.
As many of you will have heard by now (since I’m slow to comment on these things), recently the Canadian government released another strategy piece regarding ongoing efforts to recruit international students to Canada. There’s been some great commentary on this already, and I can’t add much to what others have said. Much of the criticism I would agree with, given the nature of the issues involved in branding, recruitment, and retention/graduation (though that last piece doesn’t seem to have made it onto the table for discussion). But I have a few points to add about the practical elements of this plan as a communication strategy.
While there is mention of the idea that Canadian students should also study abroad, the focus of this latest plan remains on the recruitment of international students to Canada with the dual goal of a) receiving economic benefits from their tuition and other expenditures, and b) increasing national human capital by having the “best and brightest” students stay in Canada and gain citizenship.
None of this is surprising if you’ve been following along with Canada’s policies on immigration and the past attempts to make forays into organized international student recruitment. A few years back, Canadian institutions and governments started clueing in to what other countries (primarily in the “developed”, Western world) have been aware of for a long time. Since at least 2008 the Government of Canada has been making attempts to organize a market offensive, and there’s been much flinging about of terms like “branding” and “strategy”. But Canada is late to the game as it were, and the playing field is already crowded with competition – which makes “standing out” even more of a challenge.
Setting aside for a moment the issue of treating Canada as a commodity (which I discussed in a past post), something that really stood out for me was a lack of foresight in terms of the communications component. The government plans “to “brand” Canada to maximum effect” using “customized marketing strategies”, yet it allocated $5 million for this purpose. This might not sound ungenerous until you read that the “target markets” are… Brazil, China, India (three of the “BRIC” nations), Mexico, North Africa and the Middle East, and Vietnam, to which we will market Canada while maintaining its existing appeal to “France, the UK, Germany, Japan, Korea and the US”. That’s a very diverse set of markets – almost, one could say, not particularly targeted – and each one will require a tailored approach if Canada is to “maximize” the possibility of recruiting students. Additionally, according to prior research from last year, Canada’s “brand” is mushy in at least three of the proposed markets. That means there will be extra effort required at the outset simply to make Canada “visible” as an option, and “[leveraging] Canada’s bilingual, multicultural identity” may not be enough to get the job done.
Maybe it’s my communications background talking, but to me this doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a low-cost effort. Successful branding and marketing takes a lot of research, especially when you’re expecting to develop “market plans focused on, and tailored to, each priority education market”, that are “customized to resonate with each key market and audience at home and abroad”.
The question I have is this: how will these things happen when Canada already has a clear issue with coordinating internal players to produce a coordinated externally-directed effort? In other words, there’s no department or ministry of education to set out the line on this issue, so everything takes more work. Canada isn’t like Australia or New Zealand with their more centralized governance of education; and it also isn’t like the U.S. and U.K, nations that have significant long-standing prestige to build on. So will Canadian governments (provincial and federal) and institutions be able to pull together for the sake of marketing Canada as a desirable place to study and live? How exactly will we achieve “improved coordination of marketing efforts and objectives among governments and stakeholders”?
There are also going to have to be decisions made about what kind of students Canada wants to recruit, and this will have an effect on marketing strategies. Sure, we all want the most promising, academically-able students; but isn’t there something of a conflict between trying to get the right number of “bums in seats”, and trying also to poach the best students from the international “talent market”? Can these goals be reconciled?
This latest document describes some lofty objectives for Canadian image-building for the purpose of student recruitment, but doesn’t carry through in terms of setting out how those are to be achieved in practical terms. As others have pointed out, this is not a “strategy” because having goals is not the same as having a thoughtful, well-researched and adequately-funded plan to actually achieve those goals. If a strategy of postsecondary internationalization is really “our blueprint to attract talent and prepare our country for the 21st century [and] ensure our future prosperity” then I think we have a lot more work to do.
Last October was Mental Health Awareness Month in Ontario (October 10 is World Mental Health Day), and as part of the province’s mental health and addictions strategy, there was much fanfare over the launch of new initiatives for postsecondary students bolstered by $27 million in funding. This is an important and positive step, because there’s been an increasing demand for the limited support services available on campuses, and the problem has been worsening for at least a decade.
Unfortunately, what students experience is part of a much bigger problem. Universities and colleges, as much as they may try, cannot plug the yawning gap in our system that is an issue far beyond the campus. There are many people in Ontario who need help with mental health issues and may be seeking it actively – but can’t get it. Why? Because the system is reactive. It’s designed to deal with short-term problems and with extremes and crises, rather than to help us prevent them, or help us to live with long-term conditions. This matters because ultimately, the services on campuses have to mesh with off-campus services in or connected to the healthcare system.
This is a system in which, without a formal diagnosis, you cannot gain access to accommodations in postsecondary institutions (or elsewhere). Yet to obtain this diagnosis, you have to find the right way in to the system and obtain the right help once you get there. The process can take anywhere from a few months to a year (or longer), depending on how much you know and whether you have an advocate.
For example, an assessment for learning disabilities costs $1,500 to $3,000. Some universities have assessment services, but these refer students to external testing (some of which may be covered, depending on circumstances). You still have to be a registered student to access these, or to have costs partially covered through student loan eligibility; otherwise, you or your parents will be paying. If you’ve had to de-register because of your problems, then you’re out of luck. The same goes for therapy; talk clearly isn’t cheap, in fact it costs $80 or more per hour unless you can use university counselling services – where there is a limit on the number of sessions each student can access. All this is based on the assumption that problems will be short-term and can be “fixed”; wait times for long-term services are often very lengthy.
Of course if you have the resources available, you can simply buy what you need. You can see a therapist of your choice, without waiting months to be told whether you are eligible. You, or your family, can pay for expensive assessments so that problems can be uncovered and named, and help can be obtained. The more fortunate students don’t need most of the university’s services and also don’t have to rely on the government, because they have other forms of support.
Clearly it’s still the disadvantaged students – and less-privileged people in general – who are falling through the cracks in this system. We need to ask, who receives the necessary supports and who does not? Who can step forward and say “I think I have a problem”, without fear of repercussions? Who has the resilience and stamina to pursue a solution that can take so long, and can be so draining, both to discover and to put into practice?
The current system continues to privilege not just people with existing resources but also those who are secure enough to speak about the unmentionable, in spite of the lack of awareness that even those who suffer from such problems may experience themselves. For example, the Council of Ontario Universities held a competition to encourage students to come up with the best mental health “social media strategy”. But the best strategy would be a collective one, informed by (and actively soliciting) the input of those who cannot or will not speak in the public eye. The best process would actively seek out criticism from those most affected, not just the more easily marketable solutions.
University initiatives that gain the most positive media attention often conflate short-term, seasonal stress relating to events like exams, with long-term problems like clinical depression and anxiety disorders (as well as focusing on undergraduate students). Yet it’s the exam period “puppy rooms” that make the news, not the underlying issues that are so much harder to address and resolve, like wait times for “assessments” at university counselling clinics, the lack of privacy many students feel when they go there, the difficulty of having to describe one’s situation repeatedly in the process of trying to find help, and the exhaustion produced by having to negotiate (with) a bureaucracy while simultaneously dealing with the effects of one’s condition.
Giving attention to answers that work well in a PR pitch means depoliticizing our context, and this is a serious mistake. It makes it too easy to forget about all those gaps in the system, and also about factors like poverty, abuse, and discrimination based on race, gender, disability, sexuality, and nationality; it makes it easier to individualize both the problems and the solutions, reducing the answers to “lifestyle choices”. It means we downplay the context in which students are living their lives, and how they bring this to the university when they step onto the campus. That context is part of what enriches teaching and learning, but it also has to be addressed in terms of the problems students experience both on- and off-campus, and how we can help them. Universities alone can’t fix these systemic problems, but perhaps they can bring attention to them, and that would be a great start.