Posts by Melonie Fullick
The term “talent market” has always seemed vaguely obnoxious to me. Maybe it’s 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. Maybe it’s the fact that “talent” used in this way reminds me of a circus or sideshow (not without reason). Or perhaps it’s just that it’s another term like “creatives”, which is being mobilised in an increasingly pervasive rhetoric about who, or what, is most desirable in the “new” economy (what fate awaits the non-talented?).
In any case, the “talent market” certainly isn’t a “free market”, if such a thing is possible in any context. I’ve had multiple recent reminders of this fact. One example that stands out is something I mentioned in my last post, regarding the HASTAC panel I helped organise. Two of our panel members were unable to attend in person, one because of a lack of funding and the other because of problems obtaining a visa in time.
Clearly, not all scholars can be “mobile”, at least not mobile enough to participate in the “talent market”. Laws and restrictions apply differently according to one’s nationality, life history, immigration status, place of residence, access to funds, and so on. It’s not something I’ve experienced first-hand, because citizens of countries like Canada and New Zealand (where I was born and grew up) tend to have an easy ride. In fact New Zealand seems to be viewed as one of the most innocuous nations on the planet. I haven’t travelled a whole lot, but I’ve never needed a visa (only a visa waiver). Customs and immigration officers have greeted me with jokes about Marmite and sheep. They tend to look curiously at the Māori words in my passport (or uruwhenua Aotearoa) before stamping it and allowing me to go on my way; and in addition, because I have white skin and an Anglosphere accent, I have no problem being accepted at face value.
As for some of my colleagues, they have to plan to get permission for travel months in advance; they’re missing conference events (including their own scheduled presentations) in neighbouring countries because the required forms cannot be processed in time, or because of unpredictable glitches, or new and/or esoteric requirements for visas. As the gears of government bureaucracy grind away, precious professional opportunities are lost. That’s what happened to one member of our HASTAC panel, whose visa arrived after the conference had already begun – preventing her from presenting, and also from seeing friends and family in Canada.
Another side of this issue is that there are two kind of “mobility” in higher education. The preferred version involves having the resources and status to travel where you please, to take up opportunities in other places if you so desire. This means not only money but also prestige and other kinds of support (from institutions, mentors, and loved ones). It means either being single/unattached with little to worry about in terms of family, or alternately, having a family who are willing and able to be “mobile” as well. It means (potentially) being fluent in more than one language, preferably English plus another language. It also means having been able to demonstrate “merit” in the right ways. The candidates in this group are a part of the “élite” that every university wants to woo. They have won awards for their work; they represent the cream of the global scholarly crop. But obviously, they don’t make up the majority of those working in academe.
What about the other kind of mobility? The flip side of this deal is that some folks move because they have no choice: they have to take that tenure-track job no matter where it comes up, if they want tenure (or an academic career) at all. Mobility isn’t élite for everyone – not if it means moving far from home (possibly more than once) and working in precarious jobs because that’s what happens to be available, and not if it’s about feeling forced to leave your home country because there are no opportunities there at all. There are also more local versions of this phenomenon: in Ontario, for example, some academics have contract faculty positions at more than one institution, spending a disproportionate amount of time commuting from campus to campus. Yet even this requires resources of a kind that some academics won’t be able to access (such as a car, or convenient transit).
For all these reasons and undoubtedly many more, the “talent market” is clearly a deeply unequal one, and is not genuinely meritocratic; it’s a reflection, indeed an amplification, of existing inequalities. Specifically for academics, when combined with the tendency towards élite, targeted funding and emphasis on overseas recruitment of “the best”, and an increasingly stratified and fragmented academic workforce, we have to ask what the globalised (and polarised) professoriate is going to look like. If it’s going to follow the same lines as other aspects of globalisation such as so-called free trade, then I think we can do a whole lot better.
This past weekend I attended HASTAC 2013, held at York University in Toronto. This was the first HASTAC conference held in Canada, and about half the participants were Canadian. In fact, it was the first time the conference had (physically) happened outside the United States. The HASTAC (“haystack”) acronym stands for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory; it’s a “virtual organization” co-founded by David Theo Goldberg and Cathy Davidson in 2002, which functions as a kind of user-driven platform, a support system and a place of meeting and collaboration for scholars interested in technology, creativity, pedagogy and educational change. I became interested in learning more about the organization because I seemed to know a lot of people who were involved in one way or another. When I discovered that the 2013 conference would happen at York University, I realized I had a perfect opportunity to find out first-hand what kind of work was being created by affiliated scholars.
HASTAC isn’t the usual academic conference featuring a menu of panels packed with academic talks. It’s a bit of a smörgåsbord of goodies: alongside regular keynote talks, panels and posters, there were “lightning talks”, demos, performances, multimedia art and even a Maker Space. I decided to attend fewer panels and spend more of my time looking at exhibits, taking photos, and interacting with participants – I managed to see some fascinating things and meet many new friends and colleagues, some of whom I’d chatted with online but hadn’t yet met in person.
Friday’s schedule included one event I’d determined to check out, the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In, sponsored by the Rewriting Wikipedia Project. The idea for this event was sparked partly by research on the gender imbalance in Wikipedia editors and in the content on the website itself. One participant at the conference (Ruby Sinreich) was editing the HASTAC entry itself, and another (Michael Widner) worked on an entry for Caribbean writer Karen Lord – who then turned out to be on Twitter and started chatting with him. Though I hadn’t prepared myself adequately to write or edit a Wikipedia article, I did a search for noted higher ed scholar Sheila Slaughter and discovered that she didn’t yet have a page. I felt the urge to remedy this immediately, but didn’t have the time to dig in to the task (of course, others did – here is a report of what they achieved).
Near the Wikipedia room, like buried treasure, there was a distractingly entertaining Kinect demo happening. I’m not at all familiar with the technical terms and I couldn’t find the names of the creator/s (they were from OCAD, and the group included prof Paula Gardner), but I still wanted to mention this piece because I loved the idea: it involved generating different kinds of sounds through movement, for example if you walked forwards or backwards within a specific area, the music became louder or softer; if you moved left or right, the notes moved from low and “bassy” to high, tinkly sounds. I made sure to capture a video so the effect could be conveyed more directly.
On Saturday, in spite of missing the early bus to York I managed to catch most of the morning panel “Building an Academic Community for the Digital Age” with Fiona Barnett, Amanda Phillips, and Viola Lasmana. Each of the panel members made strong points about the need for mutual scholarly and personal support, the importance of the emotional/affective side of building connections and doing work as a community (not just as individuals), and the role of HASTAC in facilitating and working on/with these things. I won’t paraphrase too much because the presenters’ own words are far more articulate than mine on these issues (their posts are linked, above).
By Saturday afternoon it was our panel’s turn to present, and in a sense our theme was “community” as well. My co-panelist Bonnie Stewart introduced us as “the most ironic panel” at the conference: our session was called “Cohorts without Borders” (my slides are here), and indeed two of our panel members were unable to attend in person because of borders and barriers of various kinds. Our colleague sava saheli singh, an Indian citizen living in the U.S., couldn’t get a visa in time from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (she did her talk through Skype); and Trent M. Kays, who contributed a video of his talk and then tuned in via Skype, was unable to get funding for his conference trip (a special shout-out goes to Daniel Lynds, who provided crucial technical support for our presentations). This highlights a “missing piece” from the rhetoric about the international “talent market” and mobility of students, scholars and “knowledge workers” around the globe, i.e. that some can be mobile while plenty of others have their movements (and contributions) restricted by a lack of resources and/or by policies that treat people differently according to their citizenship status. This is also a crucial issue in any discussion about internationalization and access to the professoriate.
Later on Saturday evening, York’s Scott Library was the venue for an after-hours reception that featured a performance piece called Digitize and/or Destroy, by York librarians William Denton, Adam Lauder, and Lisa Sloniowski. The piece was designed to highlight the process of digitization (and the work of librarians) and the kinds of decisions that have to be made during it. Each participant was invited to select a book from a trolley, and the choice of either destroying it (several pages would be cut out and shredded), or digitizing it (the book’s cover would be scanned, meta-data recorded and posted to a Tumblr), or both – in whatever order we preferred. Some of the books participants chose to have shredded included “Wife in Training”, various Weight Watchers books, and (my pick) “The Tipping Point”.
This post is just a small taste of this year’s HASTAC conference menu. If you’re interested in reading more about the conference panelists and talks, HASTAC Scholars Director Fiona Barnett has created a roundup of blog posts about the conference, available here.
This past Tuesday afternoon I participated in another panel (‘tis the season!) about higher education, this time at the University of Toronto. The panel was part of a pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, addressing how the “pragmatic agenda” is represented in media coverage of higher education. According to the event description, this agenda includes a focus on issues such as privatization of costs (and tuition fees), technological solutions to systemic problems, the “completion agenda” and job training, and emphasis on the value of STEM disciplines alongside critiques of the liberal arts. The other participants on the panel were Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator was Rick Salutin. The keynote talk was given by journalist Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera.
I’ve been looking forward to Worldviews because media coverage of higher education is an area in which I’ve had an interest for some time. I think this is at least in part because my undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies with a focus on mass media and linguistics. In my MA thesis I analysed university PR, and since I started my PhD I’ve done several projects involving media coverage of university-related issues such as the York University strike in 2008-2009, and the CERC announcements in 2010, and written a few blog posts on the theme of media and academe. Aside from my interest in these issues, I also attended the last Worldviews conference and thought it was an unusually interesting mix of attendees (primarily from the media and from academe, and international in scope).
Before the event, we discussed the panel format and Mr. Salutin proposed a question in advance: “what are your frustrations and criticisms regarding media treatments of the pragmatic agenda in higher education?” The response I gave to this was that, probably because I research this area, I find oftentimes complex issues are simplified in media articles in ways that more clearly support one argument or another that is associated with some particular agenda. The way a problem is framed tends to point to a particular solution. Since so many problems seem to be framed primarily in economic terms, there is a certain reductionist logic that recurs in the discussions.
The example I raised was that of the media coverage on MOOCs. I’ve written a piece about this phenomenon already, and I’ve also been following the ongoing coverage from a variety of sources since it first exploded last year. During the panel discussion I found that while I wanted to use MOOCs as an example of media discourse, the debate drifted to the pros and cons of MOOCs and not to the way that they are talked about and positioned within existing political, economic, and institutional contexts and discourses. I think if we focus in on that positioning, there are clear connections to the most salient post-secondary “crises” of the day. This is part of why MOOCs in the abstract have become a kind of popular trope for educational change, if not in mainstream Canadian media, then certainly in the higher ed news and in a number of U.S. media sources. For example (pardon the scare quotes):
- Emphasis on curing a problem of “scale” through technological intervention, which is presented (inaccurately) as a form of genuine accessibility;
- Focus on “outcomes” rather than (educational) processes;
- Metaphors of “delivery” and “production” that point to the objectification and commodification of knowledge and learning;
- The assumption that what the university does can and should be “unbundled” for “efficiency” and “flexibility”;
- “Value” is defined in a specific way, i.e. economically;
- “Quality” is envisioned on market terms, e.g. “elite” professors (who efficiently deliver educational “content” to tens of thousands of students);
- Concomitant critiques of faculty mediocrity, particularly in terms of teaching, placed in relation to rising tuition fees;
- Framing of higher education “crisis” and necessary radical, institutional change with metaphors of inevitability such as “avalanche”, “tsunami”, “storm” and “wave”, all of which invoke natural disasters over which people have no control, and to which they must “respond” quickly and appropriately.
Further to the MOOCs example, we can also look at the amount of “debate” driven by big name players in (ed-) tech and publishing right now, and how the agendas there can play in to the fragmentation and privatization of higher education. This rhetoric supports the strategy of commercializing and commodifying education for a larger, international “market”. In addition there have been a number of articles in the mainstream press by “thought leaders” such as Clay Shirky and Thomas Friedman, that demonstrate false analogies and hyperbolic assumptions that fit with much of what I’ve described above.
Thankfully, raising this example didn’t totally derail the rest of the discussion, though overall the panel did make me wish I had the time right now to do more research on media coverage, particularly the “link bait” pieces that seem to be popping up with more regularity these days (such as the recent “don’t do a PhD” article in Slate, and last year’s Forbes article describing faculty work as relaxing). These provide us with another example of how important issues can be hijacked in the name of raising an angry response that generates pageviews – in other words, the changing political economy of the media interacts with the context of higher education and influences how it’s talked about and understood. I think that’s a good reason for us to pay attention to that relationship and to the kinds of talk it produces.
On Thursday March 28th, I participated in a panel titled “The Future of the University in Canada”, at the University of Toronto. The discussion was hosted by Drs. Emily Greenleaf and Pamela Gravestock, who organised it as a part of their undergraduate course on “The University in Canada” (which looked like something I would love to have done as an undergrad). The other participants were Dr. Ian Clark from the School of Public Policy and Governance, U of T; Dr. Harvey Weingarten, Director of HEQCO; and Dr. Suzanne Stevenson, Vice Dean of Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Arts and Sciences at U of T. Before the day of the panel, we were presented with a set of questions to respond to in our opening remarks:
- On what issue should universities focus in the next five years?
- What should their response look like?
- How would this affect undergraduate students?
I always find it very difficult to pick a single issue in the way that is often required in debates or structured discussions (see “the blog vs. the book” for another example). As I confessed to the audience, it hasn’t been my job (yet?) to take complex problems and find implementable solutions, and of course this is a kind of weakness because it means I have few ready answers. But perhaps there’s something to be said for having the opportunity to make something as complicated as possible, with the goal of finding a different kind of solution at the end of it.
In the end I decided to argue for universities to improve the way they communicate. This might sound relatively trivial in comparison to the many “crisis” issues that face universities. Currently many people see organizational communication as a kind of frill, an add-on that is deserving of attention if and when the resources are available. But it really isn’t trivial. Communication is about far more than simply sending and receiving messages that “contain” information. The context of communication, its timing, its tone, and its rhetorical effects, are all important to the way an organization works and how its members see themselves within it (as well as the way it’s understood by those “on the outside”).
Universities are already pouring money into external communication, it’s just that quite a bit of it involves marketing to audiences including alumni, donors of various kinds, governments, and potential students–in other words, groups who will bring revenue. This is partly why internal communication (between administration, staff, and students who have already enrolled) receives less attention. It’s also why there is so often a blurring of advertising and information, which makes things more difficult for students who are trying to make the best possible decisions with the information available (Norman Fairclough has written about this). Universities should be acting in the best interests of students, and communication ethics is a part of that practice.
Another, related practice that universities engage in is the ongoing construction and defence of public image, a cause in the service of marketing since it protects the organizational brand. But policing an image tends to be a reactive way of communicating about an organization or institution and what it does; the message is “stop saying what you want to say about us”, an attempt to exert control where many people are now accustomed to a higher level of interaction, informality, responsiveness–and honesty. Universities that try to control closely all aspects of communication are also environments where faculty are less likely to want to speak out on key issues, thus reducing the possibility of academics’ engagement in key public debates.
Communication is key to all relationships within the university, the interactions that happen there every day, and the teaching and learning and research that are core aspects of its mission. In an institution dedicated to knowledge and innovation, the informal contact that helps us make new connections is facilitated by physical and virtual structures (the architecture of buildings and of social and professional networks), such as classrooms and education technology systems. All these things matter as elements of the organizational environment.
The contact that universities make with those both within and beyond their metaphorical walls is even more crucial at a time when so many different “stakeholders” are projecting their expectations onto higher education. It’s something that can help explain what universities do, what they actually offer, and how that fits with what students (for example) expect and need. Changing the way universities communicate is not a “fix” for problems like lack of funding, corporatization, and competition. It doesn’t lower tuition or alleviate student debt, and it doesn’t change the proportion of tenured faculty to contract teaching hires; it cannot resolve fundamental disagreements about the nature of academic work and university governance. What it might be able to do is help build organizational trust internally and externally, which could (who knows!) lead to dealing with future problems on different terms–or at least articulating them more clearly for everyone involved.
A recent post by David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto, has been quite popular with academics and has generated a lot of commentary. Naylor makes the argument that Canadian higher education is dogged by “zombie ideas”, and he describes two of them: the first is that universities “ought to produce more job-ready, skills-focused graduates [and] focus on preparing people for careers”. The second is the idea that research driven by short-term application or commercialization, should be prioritized by universities because it provides a better return on governments’ funding investments.
I focus here on the first point, since in the past few weeks, in the run-up to the federal budget on March 21st, there has been a great deal of coverage of the alleged “skills gap” in in the Canadian workforce. Others have already done the work of summarising this issue, but as a quick recap, the argument goes something like this: business leaders and employers in Canada complain (to the government) that they cannot fill positions because candidates lack the skills. Yet Canada produces more post-secondary graduates than ever, and those grads are having trouble finding employment that matches their qualifications. So why is there an apparent “mismatch” between the education students receive, and the skills employers are demanding?
I don’t have anything to add to the debate about what is needed more–“narrow” skills such as those available from colleges or apprenticeships, or the “broader” education that universities argue they provide–because I don’t have the expertise to make an assessment within those parameters. However, I find the discussion interesting in terms of its context, including who is doing the arguing, and why.
For example, while the “skills gap” is assumed as a dramatic fact by Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who “recently called the labour and skills shortage “the most significant socio-economic challenge ahead of us in Canada”” (CBC)–other experts, including Naylor, disagree that a skills gap exists at all. University graduates, they argue, are still making better money than those without degrees; and most of them (eventually) find jobs that draw on their skills–so why reduce the number of enrolments? Alex Usher of HESA has been generating a lot of commentary for this side of the argument as well; in the comments of one of his posts, his points are disputed by James Knight of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.
Clearly the debate is more complex than “BAs vs. welders”, but this is the rhetoric being reproduced in numerous mainstream media articles. The average reader could be forgiven for finding this issue hard to untangle, based on the radically different accounts provided by media and policy pundits. Yet all this is discussed with much urgency, because post-secondary education is now being understood as a stopgap for everything the economy seems to lack–and economic competitiveness is imperative.
The politics of urgent “responsive” decision-making lie behind many of the arguments being brought forth. The skills gap, should it exist, has its political uses; agreeing that a thing exists means having to find ways of dealing with it somehow. In this case, a restructuring of university education is one solution on offer, including steering students away from the corruption of the arts and humanities and towards more suitable areas where demonstrable “skills” are in demand. Those doing the arguing have the means and “voice” to define the problem in a particular way; they can intervene in that debate and someone will listen. Each player has stakes in this game, too–the colleges plump for skills and job training over research investments, while the universities, and their advocates, claim a “broad” education is more appropriate; employers want graduates they don’t have to train, so the concern is with graduates being job-ready (for jobs that may not even exist yet).
Is this a kind of moral panic for Canadian higher education? That’s an important question, because such tactics are used to create a climate in which particular policy changes are favoured over others, both by politicians and policy-makers and by voters.
I think at the heart of the debate there are the problems of risk, certainty, and value (for money). Canadians have more of a “stake” in what universities do–often through directly paying ever increasing amounts of money for it–and so they care more about what universities are for. Governments have more of a claim now too, because of the idea that universities are magic factories where students enter undeveloped and emerge brimming with human capital (but it must be capital of the right kind).
The more we experience instability, the more we desire certainty–or at least some form of guarantee that if things go off the rails, we have other options. Yet there is no certainty about economic (or other) outcomes either from education or from non-commercial, “basic” research. Education and research give us no way to “go back”, either. For those trying to get a good start in life, there’s no tuition refund if we fail our classes or find the job market unfriendly at the end of the degree. We can’t wind back time and have another try. So the question becomes: what will guarantee our ability to cope with the future? A long-term focus on broad learning, which can (it is argued) help us to adapt to the changing structure of careers? Or a short-term focus, on skills designed to prepare students for specific, immediate positions?
This is why Naylor makes the argument that “the best antidote to unemployment–and the best insurance against recession-triggered unemployment–is still a university degree” (added emphasis). The word “insurance” speaks to the risk each person internalises in the current economy. Such risk has many effects, and one of them is heightened fear of the unknown: with so few resources to go around, will we get a “return” on what we invested, will our sacrifices “pay off”? What will happen if they don’t? As Paul Wells has pointed out, university advocacy organizations such as AUCC have pushed for universities to be recognised as providing economic benefits–since this is a logic that validates requests for further government funding. Yet it means universities are held captive by their own argument, since funding comes with the expectation of economic returns for the government. What if they cannot deliver on this promise?
The skills/employment “gap” is being blamed for a lack of national economic competitiveness; and it is a parallel to the ongoing “innovation problem” that Canada has in the research sector. But it’s the outcome, not the process, that’s really driving this debate. Never before have we been compelled to pay so much attention to the purpose and results of university education, and now that it seems to matter so much, we’re finding that “what universities should be doing”–or even what they already do–can’t be pinned down so easily; it can’t be mapped so cleanly onto a specific, measurable result. This is partly because what we now demand of universities is certainty, where serendipity used to be enough.
This week on Wednesday, my Twitter feed was swamped first with posts about the newly elected Pope (which I expected). What I didn’t expect was that by the time evening rolled around, the Pope tweets were being eclipsed by reactions to Google’s decision to “kill” its RSS aggregation tool, Reader.
Now, I use Reader a lot–every day–to sort through piles of higher education news, so I was annoyed by this news. It means I need to seek out a new tool and set it up, not just for my personal use but for the professional accounts I run as well. Thankfully feeds can be exported, so the actual transfer shouldn’t be a big deal. There are other options available, and more are being built. For me the issue is more the irrationality of dismantling a perfectly good tool (like when Tweetdeck was bought and destroyed by Twitter), but I’m leaving that aside for now.
What I want to address is the theme of digital moralism, which is of course nothing new, but which made another appearance in the Google Reader discussion. Some of the online responses I saw were both predictable and deeply frustrating in a specific way. The line of arguing often begins with “I told you so”, as in, “I told you that using a tool from an Evil Corporation like Google would come to no good”. Followed by, “If you just do X” (get your own website or server; write your own app), your problem is solved. Then: “What, you don’t know how to code? Everyone should know how to code. Why not teach yourself? It’s easy.”
There is an ethical edge to the responses that begins to come through as a judgement. Do you really want to support big corporations that dominate the Internet and academic publishing? Are you really so lazy that you can’t take time to investigate all your options, or learn how to create your own, instead of using commercial tools?
Considering those ethics, why don’t we take a moment to consider why, other than laziness, so many people might be using these tools and why they may not have the resources (time, money) or even the desire to choose differently? This has been addressed in a number of helpful posts, including those from Miriam Posner and Lee Skallerup Bessette, which address access as it relates to gender and other forms of privilege as part of the context of coding and of recognition in the Digital Humanities. Ernesto Priego has also written about the various facets (and degrees) of academics’ “digital literacy”. These discussions have become more visible as a part of the ongoing construction of disciplinary boundaries in that field: whose work is most valued as DH work, and why?
Another argument frequently raised is that we should make coding a part of school curriculum. Perhaps if many education systems were not already struggling with their current responsibilities, that would be an option. But it would require a curricular re-design that presupposes an awful lot of resources on the part of public schools and teachers. It also adds to the responsibilization of schools for solving problems that a particular group sees as absolutely pressing but which, in comparison to other issues, may not be the most urgent. I’m not saying curriculum shouldn’t change to reflect the realities of daily interactions with technology; I think it it should. But the way the solution is framed also needs to take into account the context of schooling, and the political struggles often involved in claiming certain subjects as “essential” over others.
That’s one interesting thing about digital moralism. It may be the “right” thing, but no-one is won over to the cause when they feel chastised for using a non-preferred tool, or publishing in non-open access (OA) journals, or for thinking “Python” refers to Monty Python. I am pro-OA, and against corporate monopolies, and I still feel alienated by high-handed retorts that assume everyone has what is necessary to implement the solutions considered most appropriate. What I need is another option, something other than just “learn to code”, something that takes into account my context and its potential limitations.
In my case, the main reason I don’t have a personal blog at all is that my blog is here, on the University Affairs website. This is why it’s a problem when I’m told to “just post your papers on your personal blog, instead of on [insert existing web tool here]”. I would love to know how to program, mainly because I’d like to build the Ultimate Twitter App, but this is a daunting task to a complete beginner and when I barely have time to work on my dissertation, it’s also not realistic. In fact it’s only a relatively recent thing that I have the means to access any of this information at all, and I freely admit that most of my self-discipline has been (and still is) tied up in my PhD work.
If you have the capacity and resources to do things on your own rather than using pre-fab online tools, then I congratulate you and also thank you for any contributions you make. Those of us without coding skills need to be appreciative of the work done by those who have them; without it, we could not do what we do online. We can also support their efforts in other ways. But do we all have the opportunity to learn the skills they have? Yes–and no. The availability of resources online is not enough. This is not just about whether we “really” want to gain skills; framing it in those terms is a means of assigning responsibility and then making a judgement about other people’s commitment to a cause. It also assumes, as Trent M. Kays points out, that we cannot have any understanding and appreciation of tools–or use them critically–without also knowing how to create them ourselves; and while I believe creation brings a special appreciation, it’s not the only kind.
Recently I wrote a piece for The Globe and Mail in which I argued that we should be encouraging Ph.D. students to learn how to communicate with broader audiences. One of the questions I couldn’t really address in that short article was: what’s it actually like to engage on those practices of communication, particularly as early-career scholars who might be working on PhDs and/or seeking academic employment? Yes, I discussed the positive aspects of public exposure, but what about the “flip side”?
There is one issue in particular that has been on my radar more than usual over the past few months. Public communication of almost any kind involves risk. When you stand up and say something “out loud”, you don’t necessarily (just) start a dialogue or deepen an existing debate. You’re also presenting yourself as a target. There is a certain loss of control involved: while you may well have taken the time to carefully articulate something in writing, it only takes a few moments for someone to make a snarky comment and post it, or to dismiss your views quickly on Twitter.
Thus in a number of ways, having a larger audience is a double-edged sword. It can bring more of everything; even though you’re likely to receive supportive feedback and open the door to nuanced discussion by widening the circle of readers, you also open yourself up to misinterpretations, criticisms, and sometimes insults, from a larger number of people. Yet while some may fear these negative outcomes as a result of speaking out to non-academic audiences, it is not only non-academics who are engaging in harshly judgemental commentary, garden-variety Internet snark, and even slander. Plenty of those “on the inside” are also willing to take aim at peers and colleagues, in ways that exacerbate conflict or show disrespect.
I can think of at least two examples of friends who have been dealing with public “responses” in this way. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Ph.D. candidate at Emory, has dealt with ongoing attacks on her credibility and academic status that have been launched through Twitter, by email, and in online articles and comments. My impression is that most of these have been launched by other academics, including two graduate students who openly accused Tressie of plagiarism, unethical research conduct, and “lying” about the university she attends.
That incident in particular highlights the apparent irrationality of some of what one deals with when becoming a “public figure” as an academic. Tressie’s work on U.S. for-profit colleges and issues of race, gender and class is well-known and respected; hers is a strong voice on controversial and important issues in higher education, and she has already earned professional recognition for her contributions on this topic. The accusations made could be easily refuted with a quick Google search, and were (as usual) openly addressed by Tressie in her blog. So what was the point?
I think the actual logic comes through if we examine in more detail the comments being made about Tressie’s intelligence and, of course, her merit. For example, calling someone an “affirmative action admit” (in the context of U.S. universities) is a means of invoking someone’s race and/or gender as the primary reason for their presence in the university; this well-worn logic positions equity against “excellence”, and it is built on the belief that academics should, and usually do, succeed according to how much merit they have, rather than additionally through various forms of privilege, bias, and other circumstantial/systemic factors (a recession, for example). This assumed meritocracy is one of the deepest-rooted aspects of academic culture. It influences our understanding of the distribution of benefits and rewards in professional life, and it affects academics’ assessments of each other and of themselves–crucial to the process of peer review. It’s why, even though the discussion of privilege has entered academic research, we have mostly failed to turn the analytical gaze on academe itself.
Merit comes through again in a second example, that of Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette, who has openly discussed her efforts to find a tenure-track position in an ongoing series of blog posts for Inside Higher Ed. It’s refreshing to see anyone willing to talk about this process, particularly in light of the critical problems faced by the growing proportion of “adjunct” professors in the United States and elsewhere. But it’s also somewhat depressing to see some of the responses she has received, such as these (anonymous) comments on a recent post about job market struggles:
“These issues are the result of personal decisions that you made; it may be time to take responsibility for those decisions.”
“As tempting as it might be to castigate the author for elitism and a monstrously inflated sense of self-worth, I won’t do that.”
“The world doesn’t owe us our dream job.”
These comments, besides showing a lack of empathy for another person’s situation, also reflect the sense of self-righteousness that results from a firm belief in meritocratic justice. Surely if she doesn’t have what she wants, it must be her own fault. Surely, if she had only worked hard enough and made “smart” choices, she’d be on the tenure track by now. How many others are thinking the same thing, without posting it? How many others are in Lee’s position, but are afraid that if they speak up, they’ll be told “you just aren’t good enough–move on”? Never mind that these commenters appear to be completely tuned out from the reality of U.S. higher education; they are familiar with the core values of academe, one of which is that merit leads to success.
Examples like these point to the reasons why there is ongoing discussion about “civility” that has unfolded on Twitter and in the academic blogosphere. In my opinion the underlying issue is not about Twitter, blogs, or social media. What should concern us is the way these media reflect and even exacerbate elements of academic culture that were already there to begin with, such as the emphasis on merit, and also a kind of performative proof of one’s own excellence at the expense of others. This latter issue is what Dr. Inger Mewburn, also known as “Thesis Whisperer”, discussed in her recent blog post on “academic assholes”. The post–which had 170 comments when I checked–describes the use of cleverness to disparage others while showing one’s superiority and gaining credibility among peers, something that many of us have witnessed in academic settings. As Inger states, “cleverness is a form of currency in academia” and one does not have to be nice to be clever.
What Inger highlights in her post also seems to be confirmed by the research I have been reading lately, which is about workplace harassment in academic settings, how it happens, and who is involved. I see plenty of connections between the tone, content, and apparent purpose of some people’s online behaviour, and the way that researchers discuss multiple systemic factors in academe that influence the amount of “bullying” that goes on, as well as how it plays out.
As Lee has pointed out, we shouldn’t be surprised if academics–particularly those who are members of marginalised groups–don’t want to stand up in public and criticise the academic system. And who would want to talk about personal challenges in their career, when that might betray a “weakness”? Many people experience doubt, anxiety, stress and loneliness in academe, and this aspect of the culture works as a form of silencing that reinforces the existing lack of critique, even as it denies the political issues faced by many young or early-career academics. For both Lee and Tressie, and for many others, the vulnerability of having a “public face” is compounded by gender, race, and institutional status.
Even while they bring risks, blogging and using Twitter–and other forms of “public communication”–provide ways of building not only an audience but also a support network. Those who’ve been attacked, harassed, and chided now also have legions of defenders ready with thoughtful comments, critiques, shared experiences, and resources for dealing with problems and resisting demeaning criticisms. Many of us have gained friends, colleagues, and new perspectives through these exchanges. But can we “speak up” in our own immediate environments? If and when colleagues and peers are judgemental and nasty “offline” and invisibly, who’s there to defend us in the much smaller (and more isolating) context of a program, department, or faculty?
Through the use of arguments and critiques invoking meritocracy–often implied more than stated–we are being taught an ongoing lesson about how to stay silent, and some people are being “reminded” more regularly than others. We need to pay attention to exactly how that lesson is being taught–online and in the “public sphere”, and in the physical and social spaces of departments and universities; both publicly and privately; both by known and by anonymous participants; and we must consider how the existing tropes of academe come to inform people’s actions in those spaces.
Today’s post is about “process/es”, in the somewhat abstract sense that refers to the ways we organize ourselves when we need to make things happen, particularly things that are work-related.
I had to think a bit about this recently when I did an interview for Networked Researcher and was asked what my “workflow” looks like and how blogging fits into it. I had trouble explaining how I actually get things done, and I think that’s partly because the amount of work I do has been ramping up consistently for a few years now and I feel like I’ve been scrambling to keep up, rather than coming up with new and appropriate ways of dealing with it all. I have so much going on that I’m constantly “running behind”, so what could possibly be efficient about what I’m doing? What am I really “getting done”?
When I thought about it, I realized that of course I have found ways of juggling many things at once, but I don’t give myself any credit for it because there are usually so many unfinished projects pending. That’s why it feels like nothing is happening most of the time–so many things are “in progress”. It’s true that I’ve developed a bit of a system of dealing with all the projects and ideas that come up, so I neither have to dwell on them or forget about them. This involves a lot of little folders and documents, a means of channeling the urge to squirrel away every little thing in such a way that I can use it eventually; Liz Gloyn has written a post where she calls these tidbits “academic otters”. They usually need to be tucked away and kept for later, or tended over time rather than becoming the immediate focus.
All this relates to the process of becoming academic, or whatever it is that we want to be when the PhD is over. Though everyone is in a different situation in the latter part of candidacy, what I’ve noticed is the difficulty with trying to balance the necessary academic work (i.e. the dissertation) with other work and opportunities that come along, which can in turn lead to jobs in the future. This is a dilemma that many PhD candidates face, since it involves a difficult transition into largely unknown territory. We’re aware that the job market isn’t a friendly place these days, but the idea is to advance towards it as quickly as possible, whilst somehow simultaneously gaining enough experience to make ourselves employable when we’re done. We have to figure out how to split up our time between the all-important dissertation, and the publications, teaching, and other pieces that are needed to prepare for the post-doc and faculty job applications that many of us will be submitting later. Of course we’re also working to pay tuition and costs of living while we take care of everything else.
My biggest problem with “process” at the moment is that I’ve ended up having less and less time for necessary deep reflection on the things that are coming up both academically and in other areas of life. There is always a lot going on, but I don’t have much space to think about it. On the one hand it’s fantastic to have so many things on the go–I’m blessed–and each time something comes up I want to jump on board because of the benefit of the experience; it’s also an honour to be invited to participate in other people’s events and projects. But I’ve finally reached a point where, for the first time, I’ve had to start saying “no” (even when I feel guilty doing it). This is something Jo Van Every wrote about in her blog this week.
There are so many possibilities for distraction when focus is required. Though I need to concentrate on the parameters and completion of current projects, obsessing over (often) longer-term goals doesn’t seem to be productive; it interferes with work “in the moment”. It’s also harder to think about the ideas you’re trying to articulate in some particular paragraph or chapter, when you’re thinking about the hydro bill, the talk you’re giving in three days, and the grading that needs to be finished. Most academics are juggling in this way, and I think there’s a need to carve out a specific space for reflection without pressure because if we can’t find that, we simply can’t think and reflect the way we need to.
That part of the process is perhaps the most important one, yet it’s the easiest one to lose when we’re overwhelmed since we can always “get to it later”. I’m reminded of what some academics have said anecdotally about being overwhelmed by changes in the workplace, such as downloading of certain types of administrative work to faculty, that decrease the amount of time available to think about what’s going on. In the end, we can’t just quickly digest ideas and regurgitate them if we’re going to do our best work–as much as it feels like a luxury to take time out and reflect (or to “just read” as some academics say), to process what we’ve seen and heard and read, how else can we participate in the “life of the mind”?
A recent article in University World News argued that internationalization has “corrupted” higher education in various ways. In spite of the strong term, I found myself agreeing with much of the article, and it also made me think more about how most of the articles I see about internationalization seem to focus on its economic aspects. If–as has also been argued–there are so many social and cultural benefits to recruiting international students, why then is there such a strong focus in most arguments on the financial benefits for universities and nations? What are the potential effects of this focus?
Internationalization, and particularly the recruitment of international students, doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Universities in Canada, at least, must deal with a context in which government funding, relative to institutional expansion, has been insufficient. The solution for distributing scarce resources that’s been implemented in many jurisdictions has been the creation of (quasi-) markets in which universities compete against each other for financial support, including through student recruitment (which brings tuition revenue). This increases the amount of branding and advertising that universities use, and it encourages the student to think and behave like a consumer making choices about educational “products”.
For this consumer-driven model of education, there has always been the unique double bind wherein functionally, for the university, students are both resources and products. On the one hand, students bring capital in the form of either academic prestige (recruitment of elite performers who generate symbolic capital) or tuition dollars. On the other hand, once they graduate, students themselves are an “outcome” that reflects back on the university and on its capacity for providing “quality education” and producing the right sorts of graduates for the current economy.
With international recruitment in a context of reduced funding, we’re now seeing a scenario wherein students themselves are increasingly imagined as commodities in a global field, by universities but also by the state. Students aren’t the only ones becoming commodified in this environment; marketization brings competition between universities, but now between nations as well. As with the universities, Canada itself becomes a “destination”, a product that must be appropriately branded to encourage the recruitment of more student-clients, competing primarily with other wealthy Anglophone nations such as the UK, the United States, Australia and New Zealand.
The primary targets for this recruitment are the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and MIST (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey) nations, which have been framed as “emerging” markets. Given this context, as I’ve discussed in past posts, changes to policies in various areas show how Canada has attempted to situate itself through branding as “top of mind” in an international market for higher education. Since education is technically provincial jurisdiction in Canada, the need for a coherent national strategy is seen as more urgent and is also more difficult to implement. When framed almost solely in terms of economic benefits, this argument can be made more easily.
What happens when we start to treat even the nation-state as a product for sale, as something to be branded for a target audience? We should expect similar effects as in other sold “experiences”, including of course education. Often, the promised version of the item is presented as accessible to everyone in a similar way. As with education, people’s experiences in a new country will be highly variable depending partly on who they are and where they come from themselves. A highly glossed presentation also frequently downplays the possibility of having a negative experience; if something negative does happen, it’s now more likely to be addressed from the position of needing to maintain Canada’s image.
Once the market for university education becomes an international one, some students–but not all–become global shoppers. This issue of accessibility is not generally addressed, but in truth the costs of travelling overseas for an education are beyond what many families can really afford, even with scholarship programs available in some cases. While consumerist approaches tend to (perversely) present such things as if they’re available to all, clearly not all students are part of this “market” and thus the marketing is implicitly targeting some students over others–i.e. those with enough money or merit (or preferably, both).
Even where arguments are made for sending Canadian students overseas, these often involve turning students into ideal “global citizens”, ambassadors who can help build the economy of the future in Canada through their ability to understand other cultures. It’s interesting that in some ways the non-economic goals are in conflict with economic ones, because (for example) the international “flow” of knowledge described in this report is countered by the many restrictions on knowledge that are upheld by the state and by the university itself, and by the limits to accessibility that I described above.
If our underlying model is one wherein students are conceptualized as commodities, then we may also fail to consider adequately the human side of this vast equation. These include the results of brain drain from nations with fewer educational resources and “human capital” (especially given the link between international students and immigration), and the effects of policies on some of those who are already here. It’s likely we’ll also see more forms of corruption involving international student recruitment, as that industry becomes more established.
Considering the vulnerable position in which students place themselves when they take such a leap, the focus of this discussion–including in policy–needs to be drawn back to the benefits of international experiences for students, and the ways those experiences can be facilitated best by universities and governments. Since the tendency to focus on economics often leads to narrow or dubious policy outcomes, maybe instead of emphasizing how much we can get out of each student, we should think more about what each student could gain–and which students gain–from their experiences in Canada.
A central part of my research project is the way organizations communicate, and the organizations I focus on are universities. So when it comes to undergraduate education and university experience, an important question I think we need to ask is this: what’s the message that students receive from universities? I’ve been thinking about this lately, and was discussing it again last week with students in one of my tutorials. Here are a few of the thoughts that came out of that discussion.
Relevance and clarity
No matter how much information we provide–and indeed, often because of the amount of information provided–students are likely to feel overwhelmed. But in spite of the efforts that universities put in to welcome new students to campus each year, it seems students still have trouble getting the right information at the right time. A common complaint I’ve heard has been that relevant policies, procedures, and guidelines, such as those pertaining to the acquisition of credits towards programs, or add-drop dates, are buried in obscurity rather than highlighted for students before it’s “too late”. It simply isn’t enough to say “the information is on the website”, when it could be located somewhere non-intuitive, or when in some cases a policy could have been announced up-front. So the problem is more than the lack of information about a specific policy, rather it’s a lack of understanding of the overall system (more on this below). The answer isn’t about “spoon-feeding”–in fact, if we start explaining to students how the system works and what kinds of information are important, they’re more likely to be able to navigate it autonomously in the future.
Media and messages
Good communication isn’t just about content and timing, it’s also about the use of appropriate channels. One of my favourite examples is email. Though frequently tethered to their smartphones, many undergrads really don’t seem to rely on email the way their professors and TAs do. I learned from the start, when running tutorials, that though the university assigns every student an email address, relying on this address is folly because usually the students don’t check it. Since they also don’t use email as much as I do, they’re not likely to go to the trouble of setting up the university account to forward mail to a personal one outside the university system. At this point, I tend to ask during the first class for “the email address you actually use”, and I try to use it sparingly, knowing that many of the students might not see the message until long after its relevance has expired. I haven’t personally figured out a solution to this challenge, since text messaging feels much too personal and no-one seems to like Twitter (for example).
Familiarity and connection
In the past I’ve had students come to me for academic and career advice, and even for letters of recommendation–bearing in mind that I’m not a professor and I certainly don’t have tenure, so my name isn’t likely to do them any favours on a grad school application. For many students it’s become more difficult to connect with tenured professors, since universities have expanded and come to rely much more on short-term faculty appointments. Why, then, are students not seeking out their academic advisers? I think it’s because as their TA, I’m the one who’s most available to talk–and with whom they had some regular contact, in a somewhat less formal setting. I’ve probably read and assessed their writing, so I have a sense of what they’ve been up to. This raises the issue of the need for human connection in our universities. Perhaps in the past we had such small universities that this was not something that needed to be explicitly addressed. Large universities often seem to be low-trust organizations, but students are looking for someone trustworthy to help them navigate through their time in the organization; what they need is a “way in”, and what we need are more ways to help them find it.
Holistic and coherent communication
As I’ve mentioned in a few other posts, the lack of direction compared to what is provided in earlier educational experiences can be particularly overwhelming (and upsetting) for younger students arriving right from high school. The university is a maelstrom of departments, faculties, courses, services, rules and policies, and people, all of which are unfamiliar to entering students. Undergraduates I’ve asked have said that the experience is overwhelming at least in part because of the very fragmentation that has accompanied universities’ organizational expansion (and bureaucratization). This includes a kind of fragmentation of the services available to students. When help is available, why do students frequently avoid seeking it? Are they perhaps intimidated or afraid, or do they not know what help they need? Each service may be located in a different office somewhere on campus, and staffed by completely different groups who may or may not communicate with each other. But students are not collections of fragmented parts, each requiring tending in its separate way–academic mentoring, mental health and personal issues, work and career planning, writing support. Is there a way to create a better-connected institution?
So what’s the message that students receive from universities? From asking undergraduates, it sounds like oftentimes it’s an incoherent, authoritative, and monologic one. This tone and delivery in and of itself can be off-putting enough that students might feel uncomfortable seeking help. For example, being told “that information was/is available to you” (i.e., “you should have known better”) is not a helpful approach when students may be confused and in the middle of a crisis, seeking support. One thing that’s missing is the understanding that rather than just providing students with lists of available services, we need to de-mystify the university itself; instead of trying to create the perfect bureaucratic system (which is impossible in any case), we could show students how systems work. This is also part of the “tacit” knowledge that students gain from being in university; to help students understand the institution, we need to make that knowledge explicit–to communicate it.