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.
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.
I’m a big fan of British comedies, particularly the fine tradition of political humour so well exemplified by Yes, Minister and The New Statesman. More recently, The Thick of It has become a favourite, and in one of the most squirm-inducing episodes, staff in the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship realise that 7-and-a-half months’ worth of immigration records have been wiped from a computer. Havoc ensues, especially after the gaffe is accidentally revealed to a journalist.
Of course the humour comes from the extremity of the scenario–“that would never happen in real life”, we tell ourselves–it’s just too far down the path of incompetence. But last Friday afternoon we were proven wrong, not by the UK government, but by Canada’s own–and this time it wasn’t 7.5 months’ worth of data, it was 6 years’ worth. The data were from Canada Student Loan program clients and HRSDC employees, and they were on a portable hard drive that was “lost” from an office in Gatineau, Quebec. Is it any surprise that for some of us the first reaction was “is this a joke?”
The news, real enough, is that over half a million students (and 250 civil servants) have had their privacy compromised by the loss of personal and financial information–“student names, dates of birth, Social Insurance Numbers, addresses and student loan balances”–that could be used for identity theft or other forms of fraud. Whether or not the information had been obtained by someone who might have malicious intent is unknown–because we don’t know where the data went. The external drive just disappeared.
As it turns out this loss was discovered only during the process of investigating an earlier mishap involving a USB key containing information from another 5,000+ Canadians. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has begun an investigation of the breach since “there is a serious possibility that an investigation would disclose a contravention of the Privacy Act”; the issue was also referred to the RCMP on January 7.
From the press release there are a couple of things that stand out, other than the obvious. Looking at the timeline of events, it seems like it took over two months from the time the hard drive was missed (on November 5, 2012) to a public announcement alerting CSLP clients to the loss (on January 11, 2013). During this period the HRSDC developed a new “policy for storing secure information” designed to prevent similar incidents in the future, which is described in detail in their press release. I’d be interested to know more about why it took so long to inform the affected parties.
It’s also interesting to look at how this information was communicated to the public. For example, the announcement was made as part of what journalists and political communicators often call the “Friday news dump” (a tactic that doesn’t always work). The press release itself, including a statement from Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, was inappropriately (but optimistically) titled “Protecting Canadians’ personal information at HRSDC”. While I understand the organization’s desire to provide the least negative slant, this kind of re-framing is vaguely embarrassing given the nature of the problem.
The issue has gained more media attention this week, especially after Newfoundland lawyer Bob Buckingham filed a class-action against HRSDC; thousands of students are already coming forward to join it. Since I have student loans from the period in question, I knew this incident could have personal consequences. I called the number provided by HRSDC and after being greeted with “thank you for being proactive about your privacy”, a search was run on my SIN and I was told that my information hadn’t been “compromised”. But even knowing that my name isn’t on the infamous 583,000-person list hasn’t been enough to dull my curiosity about how this happened in the first place, and the person I spoke with on the phone didn’t have anything else to tell me. Others who’ve found their information was on the drive haven’t had better luck; they’re being told to wait until they receive a letter via snail mail, and to start taking precautions themselves. Unfortunately, we can’t protect our information pre-emptively on behalf of a government agency–otherwise this might not have happened in the first place.
To start out this shiny new year, we’ve already seen another example of something that has happened several times over the past 12 months: the Higher Ed News Fiasco. This time we can thank Forbes Magazine, specifically Susan Adams, for presenting us with an article about the “least stressful jobs” in the United States in which “university professor” is top of the list.
I have no interest in countering the Forbes article, since so many others have already covered that ground effectively. But I do think the mistakes made were indicative of a lot of the misperceptions that non-academic publics have about how universities work, which are being amplified in the echo-chamber of mass media. For example, Adams falls into the trap of assuming that professors have essentially the same job as public school teachers: “unless they teach summer school, they are off between May and September and they enjoy long breaks during the school year”.
Of course this is nonsense. Anyone who has the summer off at this point is either close to the end of their career, or unemployed. But this is for some reason a common conflation. Looking back to last March, David C. Levy wrote a column for the Washington Post in which the same “point” Adams makes in Forbes–that “even when school is in session [professors] don’t spend too many hours in the classroom”–is used to argue that faculty simply don’t work hard enough. So the faculty job is reduced to teaching, or rather, to the time spent teaching in a classroom. But this is part of what Dr Isis calls the “lazy professor trope”, a theme that has recurred in media coverage and also in pop culture representations of university faculty.
A third example of ridiculously bad coverage comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education. In May 2012, a blog post by Naomi Schaefer Riley was published on the CHE site, and in this post she argued that Black Studies departments should be eliminated (the post was extremely insulting about young scholars working in that research area). Schaefer Riley was soon fired from CHE, though she was later given the opportunity to condemn the academic “mob” in a follow-up article for the Wall Street Journal–in which she consistently spells Tressie McMillan Cottom’s name incorrectly. Of course, coming from the Chronicle this kind of thing is doubly egregious, since higher education itself is the focus of their publication.
So, how does it happen that major, respected news sources can produce this sort of fluff and present it in all seriousness as “journalism”? What exactly is the process that gave rise to this kind of reporting on an issue that has become so much more visible politically? After all, it’s not like the information wasn’t available for Adams, if she’d chosen to go looking.
It’s possible that these writers were simply more committed to a particular position than to fact-checking. It’s also possible that some publications want a poke at the anthill, in the hopes of stirring things up and generating attention for their own higher ed coverage. Both Forbes and the Chronicle published follow-up articles that refuted the initial posts. This strategy covers two bases: it makes the publication look as if it’s amending its errors by posting “correctives” or the “other side” of the story, and it also brings even more attention to the original issue (and post), thus generating yet more pageviews and more responses, and so on. It’s disingenuous but very effective.
While we shouldn’t be surprised to see mainstream for-profit media outlets using strategic sensationalism, we do need to hold them responsible for the incredibly poor quality of some of the information they’re providing. This is a problem for the author as well as Forbes, because if you have a platform, i.e. a major national publication, then you also have a responsibility to your audience; and if you’re publishing articles to a significant audience, you should be employing some form of quality control.
The real scenario would have been sensational enough. In another simple but staggeringly irresponsible statement, Adams misses one of the biggest issues in U.S. higher ed today: “Universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professors by 2020” (emphasis added). This conflation of both the tenure-track and adjunct positions is a crucial error that elides the key issue, the radical decline of tenured profs as a proportion of the US academic workforce. The adjunct workforce was one of the hot topics at this year’s MLA conference, which was also occurring in early January. In fact it must have taken actual effort to ignore the wealth of information available on the subject of faculty careers and the problems faced by the academic workforce (not just in the U.S., either).
Why does this matter? I believe, as I’ve argued before, that media representations have effects on people’s perceptions and that this has political implications. That’s why those of us working in universities should be making an effort (where possible) to contribute to media coverage and public debates about post-secondary education. This isn’t about being “defensive”; often, there are “missing issues”, gaps, and arguments made that don’t seem to fit our first-hand experiences and knowledge of universities and how they work. And while there are restrictions on mainstream media articles that make writing them more of a challenge–for example, limited space and the need to translate complex issues for a larger audience–I still think we should be trying to fill in those gaps if and where we can.
Much attention has been paid to student mental health issues over the past year, and recently the level of coverage peaked with a new report from Queen’s University at the end of November (PDF here). The report came from an initiative prompted by a number of student deaths by suicide at Queen’s in 2010 and 2011. On a related note, some of you may recall a post I wrote a year ago (and a follow-up), regarding Ph.D. attrition and mental health issues such as stress and depression.
Last week, a blog post from HESA’s Alex Usher invoked both the more recent media attention to undergraduate stress, and my own (aforementioned) post, expressing skepticism about the reality of an “epidemic” of mental health troubles. The post is written as a kind of “Mythbusters 101” about student mental health, and the topic is unfortunately treated as if it is merely the fad of the month (or year) in Canadian postsecondary education (PSE). While it’s always a compliment when someone engages with something I’ve written, I believe the compliment is a backhanded one in this case, since the arguments I made about graduate education are quickly dismissed as a smokescreen for Ph.D. student “angst” and fear of (real or imagined) failure.
This choice of term is revealing; “angst” is a significant word because through connotation, it both individualizes and trivializes the problem. Here, it is part of an argument about “the tendency to over-medicalize daily life”, a comment that assumes there’s nothing going on in daily life that should be considered “stressful”. The very point I was trying to make in my post, a year ago, was that the problems of stress and anxiety are not just attributable to individual weaknesses or quirks of circumstance–not when we can identify certain patterns unfolding across systems over long periods. Suggesting that the problem lies with individuals’ interpretations of their circumstances, rather than being (also) a structural and cultural one, is dismissive of the elements in an equation that may be beyond the individual’s control. We need more understanding about what those might be, rather than an assumption that they aren’t part of the equation.
As others have already pointed out, there are a number of causes for increased visibility of mental health issues among students (not just in Canada), but that doesn’t mean the issues weren’t there before or that they haven’t been building over time; they’re long-term and influenced by systemic factors. For example, the massification of PSE, and related increases to costs, have changed the kinds of students who attend university and the circumstances from which they have to work on their education. This means more students who have fewer (academic, financial, and cultural) resources to draw on, and are more likely to be struggling to keep up for various reasons. So perhaps students are “a lot more fragile, and less prepared” than in the past — but not necessarily for the reasons provided by Usher.
It’s also a problem to assess students’ financial straits primarily by looking at tuition numbers. This is a very superficial way to examine finances, no matter what other argument is being made (in this case, Usher also argues tuition has not really increased–and neither has student debt). It’s particularly problematic when we know there has been a serious economic recession that has affected finances in many ways that go far beyond tuition and other fees. Stress from financial difficulty is a serious problem to which some people have much more immunity than others. To be financially vulnerable is to be exposed, perpetually, to the possibility of loss and disruption. It often signals, or in fact creates, a parallel social isolation; this is why it’s impossible to deny the reflexive link between mental health and poverty.
There’s also a recurring gripe, raised again by Usher and of course taken up with much enthusiasm by Margaret Wente in her latest column (the argument has been “answered” eloquently by Gary Mason here), that accuses young students of having (ironically?) “too much self esteem”. I’m not sure where this assumption could be coming from — perhaps the focus on “high achieving” students? — but it certainly doesn’t match the experiences I’ve had working with undergraduate students in universities over the past eight years or so. Perhaps this is all part of the new “young people don’t have it as bad as they think” discourse that seems to be emerging, though much of that commentary is coming from those who benefited most from what young people are now losing, i.e. the welfare state systems of education, health, and pensions.
Sure, the “kids” have expectations–which were happily passed along to them from their parents’ generation. They were told that if they worked hard and went to university, there would be a job at the end of it. They were told that standards of living could keep rising, and that they could do what their parents did, but somehow do better. Yet the real bubble–that 30-year blimp of post-war prosperity–has long since gone down in flames, and we’re finally seeing the long-term effects. This is about more than changes to the job market or periodic recessions; it’s about risk, speculation on long-term “outcomes” of larger “investments” being made by people when they’re at a young age, when they cannot expect the kind of socioeconomic mobility that their parents could. Yet commentators continue to assume that all this must be the responsibility of the individual, the family, perhaps even the school system (since education is supposed to prepare us for life — and it perpetually “fails” at this).
Wente’s comment that “stress is a fact of life at university” disturbingly echoes the “everyone has a breakdown!” mentality that I described in my initial post about PhDs and depression. While she describes herself as “extremely sympathetic to the issue of students’ mental health”, the actual argument is, “if I could take it–they should be able to take it too.” But if we take a step back, the larger context might start to look like a recipe for stress; and if you think undergrad students are worried about jobs, you should see Ph.D. students who want university faculty careers. So I must disagree that structural issues in the university, and in the larger society and economy, can be written off so easily as “angst”.
I would argue that comparisons to the 1990s are not really useful, because the problems of disappointed expectations and increasing stress (over outcomes), both at the graduate and undergraduate levels, are not just blips on the historical-economic radar. They signal the end of a way of life, or rather, a life trajectory, and at a deeper level, a kind of betrayal of trust that further dents our faith in social progress. Whatever we may think about “kids these days”, one thing’s for sure: unless you start out in a nice solid position on the socioeconomic class ladder, sustainable ascension is more and more of a challenge. That means it’s harder to have the things in life we’ve been told we should want — a home, a family, some security for the times when we can no longer work to sustain ourselves.
From what I can tell, the majority of young people entering university want to be able to do something reasonably meaningful, and sustainable, with their lives–without having to be perpetually concerned about whether finances and lack of social capital will trump opportunity at every turn. If those expectations are too high, then I would ask, what exactly is “reasonable”?
That’s a question that came up on Twitter last week. And while to many this sounds like a “no-brainer”–“of course education can be sold, it’s already being sold all the time!”–my thought is that the question is a lot more complex. On Twitter, with its restriction of 140 characters per post, I found it was very difficult to have this discussion because the concept of education itself needed to be fleshed out in more detail–and as usual, the underlying idea of the thing we’re discussing has a huge effect on the conclusions we draw.
In fact, I wasn’t simply denying the “reality” that education is sold already. “Education” is of course sold, marketed, and discussed as if it is a product. But in these discussions, what exactly is meant by “education”? What does education marketing tell us we’re being sold? And does it correspond with what actually happens when students arrive at college or university?
A book, for example, is not like education (yet higher education has been compared to bookstores). A book is a contained physical or virtual thing, an item (a discrete unit), an object (seen as exchangeable; reified), a product (something produced)–it can be seen as all those things in economic terms, and it can be sold as such, even in digital form. Another popular comparison is to the music industry; I would argue that music itself is still not a good parallel with education because an MP3, for example, can be sold or transferred as an item. Music doesn’t require that an audience participate; it only requires them to purchase a copy of the recording (or access to an event). What music and books have in common is that, like information, they’re separate from the person doing the buying. So the comparison doesn’t really work, because education is more like something that happens, and happens differently for everyone.
My friend Dr. Alex Sevigny has an analogy that I think works much better: education is like a fitness program. Yes, you can pay for access to a gym with top-of-the-line facilities. You can pay for a trainer to take you through the best possible individualized regimen. You can buy the shoes and expensive gym clothes. But ultimately if you don’t get yourself to the gym, multiple days a week, and push yourself to get fit–there’s no benefit in any of it.
Education works in much the same way: it is a process, one in which the student plays a necessary part, and an experience, in which the student plays a major role in the “outcome”. In fact every student actually receives a different “education”, with different outcomes, even if they’re all paying the same amount. What you pay for with tuition money is not “education”, but access to resources–libraries, expert staff, teaching and mentorship, even social contact–and access to a formal credential. Even the credential isn’t guaranteed, since students must complete academic requirements in addition to paying tuition and fees.
The assumption that education itself can be sold seems in part like a conflation of “education” and “credential”, and also an assumption that education never required anything from the student in order to be education. The idea that in the past students were not “engaged” with material is closely related to this. Of course students in the past were engaged to learn–they had to be. Otherwise they couldn’t have learned anything, because that’s how learning works. This is why “education” cannot be “delivered” like the daily paper.
The concept of education as an object is also present in debates about online learning, particularly in the recent massively hyped corporate and Ivy League versions of MOOCs. Driven as they are by the non-pedagogical need to find economies of scale, these projects envision students quantitatively, from the calculation of enrollment to the use of “learning analytics” to track behaviour (and the monetization of data). This fragmentation turns education into a series of discrete services, interactions, and measured outcomes.
Such a view of education–as something that can be delivered, sold, packaged–is part of a schema that includes the overly-simplistic “sender-receiver” model of communication, and the objectification of knowledge. These ideas are present in much of the criticism of, and commentary about, higher education; and they are pervasive in the rhetoric of education marketing and policy. The marketization of education, its presentation as simultaneously a product and a service, its increasing necessity in a difficult economy, and the financial burden placed on students through increasing tuition and fees, have all contributed to our understanding of what education is. Objectification and commodification go hand in hand; treating students as consumers means encouraging them to see education as something to be consumed–not created. Of course this is much easier than saying, “you’ve paid $6,000–now you have to do the work”, because that arrangement simply doesn’t fit with consumerist logic.
For the above reasons I see this question about the meaning of “education” not as a problem of business models or technological solutions, but something else first–a philosophical issue that is crucial to the success of teaching and learning. It is a discussion about language, psychology, epistemology, and pedagogy. I don’t think it’s an easy discussion; but what knowledge is, and how education works, are things we need to understand as deeply as possible since we impart such power and control to the systems where these concepts are deployed.
I’m rather tired of seeing a certain kind of argument about university teaching being repeated over and over of late. In this argument, the lecture is set up as a “straw person” version of university teaching, and it’s then knocked down by assertions about the superior flexibility and convenience of the Internet and various forms of tech-mediated learning. I think there’s a lot of missing context for this argument, so I’m going to try to outline some of that here.
One of the latest iterations of it comes from Don Tapscott, who wrote an article for the Globe & Mail’s recent “Re:Education” series. In this article, the author employs a number of points that I find simplistic but in tune with the popular themes that recur. Firstly, he compares universities to “encyclopedias, record labels, and publishers”, in a position of peril where “the most visible threat are the new online courses, many of them free, with some of the best professors in their respective fields.” Next, he indirectly invokes the (much-criticized) “digital natives” idea to argue that students need new technologies: “There is a rapidly widening gap between the model offered by big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up immersed in digital technologies best learn.” The Baby Boomer generation were accustomed to “passively” watching TV, while young people today are used to interacting with multimedia technologies. Thus, the lecture is outdated: students now “need an interactive education, not a broadcast dating back two or three centuries”.
Those who’ve attended university have usually had at least one or two professors who weren’t any good at teaching and specifically, at giving lectures. What I find deeply uncharitable (and inaccurate) is to generalize this experience even to the majority of university teaching faculty. I’ve given academic lectures in various classes, and I can assure you there’s no reason to assume the speaker is simply “transmitting” information. One of the main underlying issues here is the assumption of passivity in the students, and of a transmission model of communication that has long been critiqued by communication theorists. Another is the generalization about faculty approach, as if those doing the speaking aren’t working to make their presentation engaging and responsive—and as if there’s nothing but lecturing going on in a course.
When it comes to critiquing the lecture specifically as a form and on most faculty as incapable of making it work for the majority of students, there’s another, more fundamental problem involved. A few years ago, back when we were still talking about the problem with ballooning class sizes, there was research being pulled out that suggested the lecture itself wasn’t a bad format, as long as the professor did a good job. Where is that research now? Or was it just that such arguments were needed more, back when we didn’t have massive online courses in which tens of thousands of students could, theoretically, learn from a single “best” professor? This preoccupation shows how we’re still trying to solve the main problem of massification in universities—the need for economies of scale. The lecture was what came closest in the past; the Internet is the new technological “remedy”.
What’s particularly frustrating about the critique of current teaching is precisely that it comes at a time when universities and faculty are under scrutiny for other reasons as well. As Jonathan Rees notes, there is “a cottage industry of pundits who gleefully suggest that faculty in every department of the modern university are somehow headed for the scrap heap”. Professors, apparently, don’t work hard enough and definitely don’t do enough teaching to begin with. This context is reflected in Margaret Wente’s latest column, which provides another good example of the superficial rhetoric about faculty and teaching (while reducing a complex policy debate to “access or quality”). Wente’s piece shows that the ongoing segregation of teaching and research (and general fragmentation of university work) is being justified through arguments about the low quality of university teaching. The plugging of teaching-focussed universities as the solution to funding problems should indicate part of why this kind of “differentiation” is continually presented as desirable.
As well as the segregation of faculty into “streams”, we’re seeing all kinds of proposals for getting rid of as many faculty as possible and replacing them with “superstars” (the “Mick Jaggers of academe”), or indeed, with robots that can perform the tasks currently assigned to teaching staff. But how are those superstars expected to teach? Often enough, what’s suggested is another large online course that seems to mimic the lecture-and-tutorial model. So Tapscott’s invocation of online learning and digital tools as the remedy for lack of student-faculty interaction seems somewhat misguided, or perhaps just not clearly explained. I’m still not seeing how large class sizes can be maintained, “[using] technology to free up professors from transmitting information to curating customized learning experiences.”
Are there faculty who are weak at teaching? By all means, yes, and we should work to improve the standard of teaching overall. But simple generalizations in the name of putting forth a specific vision of “change” shouldn’t be mistaken for a pedagogical analysis. If the relationship between teaching and research is considered “unproven”, why are we not looking at it more closely? The same goes for the lecture and for e-learning. If there’s systematic research being done on how these things work or don’t work, then it should be cited as part of these arguments; if the work doesn’t exist, then we should start addressing that lack rather than jumping to the preferred answer. And if the work isn’t being rewarded in the research-driven academic economy, we should address that, too.
Critiques of education (and other forms of policy) often contain assumed solutions embedded in them. But there are also other possible solutions. If class size isn’t necessarily a determinant of “outcomes”, then why are we still talking constantly about one model–online education or in some cases blended learning–when we could be discussing reducing class sizes, and providing more pedagogical resources and training for graduate students and faculty? What exactly do we know about how online components work (or not)? Do we even have a way of “measuring” student learning to show what works? The context of all this is not a neutral one, it’s not just “let’s improve learning by finding out what will help the most”. The loss of resources including government funding has created serious material pressures. The urgency of the rhetoric about “change” should also remind us that there will be winners and losers in the education game, and futurologists have stakes in predicting something that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy—because prediction inspires present action.
Sometimes I find there are threads of conversation that keep coming up with friends, colleagues, and students, both in person and online. Recently one of those threads, which has also recurred in my own blog posts, is that involving the focus on skills and outcomes in university education and the apparently perpetual critique of universities’ capacity to help students gain what they need to be “successful” (in the workplace and in life more generally).
Over Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, the Globe & Mail began a two-week-long series on postsecondary education in Canada (full disclosure: I also participated in this series). One of the themes explored in print has been that of the “core curriculum” vs. “specialization”, and which one works best when it comes to preparing students for developing their careers. In particular, articles by James Bradshaw and Cathy Davidson explored the benefits and difficulties of advocating a curriculum shift towards less specialized, more “liberal arts”-style approaches.
The question of curriculum in university education is posed (in the articles) primarily in terms of a broad-based approach involving common “core” elements determined by the university, or on the other hand, more student choice and more specialized options. The appeal of a liberal arts education is that it’s “broad” and supposedly flexible; flexibility, we’re told, is what’s required for a successful career these days.
But nothing is flexible if you aren’t aware of the options it opens up. One perennial irony is that it’s almost impossible to gain the benefits of this kind of education without abandoning a certain kind of instrumentalism–the exact kind that students are encouraged to have when they select university programs. Traditionally, this freedom from anxiety about specific outcomes has been the privilege of the elite–as has the cultural capital required to make the most of liberal arts education. Now that universities have expanded beyond catering to existing elites, and costs have increased, the question of instrumentalism has become more urgent. This is also part of why we now see more explanations of the liberal arts as having a “utility” that is still translatable within economic logic.
It’s no surprise then, that James Bradshaw notes “many prospective students–as well as their parents–still consider liberal-style learning impractical.” This attitude is related to the emphasis on skills and outcomes. The focus on and demand for “marketable” skills and job outcomes places pressure on any debate about the components of education, along with the argument that employers require or demand certain skills (and that universities are not providing these–or students are not choosing to acquire these “useful” skills). Yet there’s no point in saying students need a particular skill, without placing that skill in context. Skills tend to be acquired in the pursuit of some larger interest or goal that motivates us. And that goal, that interest, that passion–that’s what students need, not just whatever is deemed most marketable in the moment.
Perhaps this is my preferred line of reasoning for a kind of common curriculum designed to provide “grounding” for students not only with some breadth of knowledge, but with a sense of the way university education works. Undergraduate students frequently don’t have a coherent path mapped out for themselves, unless they have access to cultural capital that allows it. For many, university education is the way in which discoveries and decisions about careers are made–as well as the means of carrying out those decisions. All this can generate a lot of anxiety about what the “outcomes” might be. Are we acknowledging the situation students face, or are we constructing systems that are based on the assumption that students engage in fully-informed decision-making behaviour at an early stage, with no “information asymmetry” involved?
I also agree that what Mark Kingwell describes in his article, “a sense of intellectual connection, of how things fit together and influence each other”, is a large part of the answer. Students need to see those connections between different areas of knowledge, because through those connections (new) meanings emerge. The specialization of knowledge has helped us to gain deeper understanding, but it can also hinder the learning process because specialized knowledge can be taught without reference to a holistic context. Yet we’ve spent a very long time encouraging the fragmentation of the university into different areas that may or may not be engaged in (or be willing to engage in) interdisciplinary exchanges. This fragmentation has affected not only organizational forms and policies such as funding structures, but also the culture of academe.
It’s really metacognition–“thinking about thinking”, or as Lawrence Summers described it, learning “about how to learn”–that is at the core of what students need, no matter what their area of study. It’s something that underpins critical thinking, aids our adaptation to new environments and experiences, and helps us understand our strengths and how to use them. Students tend to do best when they know their own interests and talents, and are themselves determined to work to take things further. Without that desire, how can learning happen at all? This kind of self-awareness is vital, aided by advice, mentoring, and a pedagogy that must overcome the theory/practice, academic/“real-world”, and content/process divides that permeate so much of our thinking about education. An old adage applies: this is the difference between giving someone a fish, and teaching them to catch their own.
So instead of questioning (for example) “are students getting the ‘right’ skills to get a job?”, we could ask: can we foster (self-) knowledge and skills at the same time, and how will that look for different students with various needs and resources? I think it’s questions like those, rather than the ones about market demand, that are central to the kinds of problems we’re trying to address now in university education.
Last week Leo Charbonneau over at Margin Notes blog wrote about an article in the most recent issue of Canadian magazine The Walrus, “The uses and abuses of university”. The article isn’t online yet, but my print copy arrived last week, so I was able to take a look at it. The authors, Drs. Ken Coates and Bill Morrison, argue at length that there is a “mismatch” between the kinds of degree programs that students are choosing, and the real needs of the economy. The solutions they discuss include increasing the number of STEM graduates (not a new idea), and “directing students into fields with the greatest need” through various mechanisms, including subsidizing some fields (those in economic demand) but not others.
I think it’s interesting to compare the piece to another recent article, “How the invisible hand points students to a job”, in which Miles Corak took a similar approach yet came to a very different conclusion. Corak discusses a study by Morley Gunderson and Harry Krashinsky (here is a similar one by the same authors, from 2009, in PDF format). Contrary to Coates and Morrison, The researchers found that “the higher the expected earnings in a field of study, the greater the enrollment”, with “one big exception: students choosing the social sciences”, who chose “irrationally” (i.e., they selected fields with low economic returns). Though the authors couldn’t explain the latter “anomaly”, overall it was concluded that the market is functioning effectively, since students are paying attention to “price signals”.
Clearly “crisis”, invoked in the Walrus article, is a popular trope in education discourses of all kinds. So rather than trying to pin down (again) the latest definition of the term, I think it’s more interesting to ask: what we can learn about society and education by looking at the use of the term “crisis”–what does its use signify, or alert us to, in our current context?
It seems that universities have been in “crisis” for, not just decades, but centuries. More recently we have a “crisis literature” in higher education, a whole series of texts that take up this trope from various viewpoints. It seems as if the power to define what the crisis is enables one party or another to offer the solution, to offer a line of reasoning that supports particular actions. The word has an urgency to it, and it calls out for an immediate resolution, one that must not be delayed lest the situation deteriorate to some theoretical point of no return.
In the examples I’ve shown here, the (potential) crisis is an economic one, a crisis of the market, a matter of the right levels of “human capital” production in the right areas. What is lacking is a match between graduates “produced”, and skills in demand. This is why, in both articles, the burden of appropriate choice is placed on young students: as when Corak states, “make a wrong turn in these hallways and you will pay for years. But so will the rest of us”.
The argument about a skills/jobs “mismatch”, as shown by Coates and Morrison, is part of what may be characteristic of more recent critiques: universities are being responsibilized for economic failures of the nation, on one hand, and for entrenched socio-economic inequality, on the other. I think this is why we have the bizarre spectacle of Harvard professor Niall Ferguson claiming that American universities support a “caste system”.
In a way this makes sense, given that this most recent “crisis” involves the massification of the university and a concomitant shift of expectations. Such demands are being projected onto the university at this moment not because universities are necessarily failing in some inherent way, but because in the larger context, these are the terms of assessment (i.e. those of the market, of national economic competitiveness). For example the entire concept of “disruption” — so popular now — is tied to the idea of an education market and the creation of new technology-enabled “business models” for it.
Instead of questioning the latest version of “crisis”, perhaps we should ask whether a central characteristic of universities over time has been the tension between social context and the desire/demand to create “new” knowledge, and that it’s somehow understood the university should be both of this context and also outside of it. The focus on universities’ slowness to adapt to external change is a part of this tension as well, especially if we consider the simultaneous obsession with universities as centres of “innovation”.
As always, there are no simple answers here–at least none that rely on the university as the means of resolving deeper societal contradictions. But I think it might help if we start asking different questions when we hear those words, “crisis”, “failure”, “disruption”.
Today’s post is about a thread of discussion happening over in the UK, where there has been an increasing amount of debate about the role of post-secondary education in “social mobility” (hint: the argument is that universities should do more to make it happen). In a bizarrely perverse twist, one commentator even argued that universities should have to demonstrate how much social mobility they provide, and that part of their funding should be dependent on it.
This discourse of responsibilization is nothing really new. Since at least the 1960s education has been handed the role of the “great equalizer” in unequal societies. Even once we nominally acknowledged structural rather than just individual constraints, education was (ironically) expected to alleviate these–whilst simultaneously being critiqued for reinforcing economic and social hierarchies.
If we accept the premise that we live in a capitalist democracy, we also need to remind ourselves that the term is practically oxymoronic. On the one hand we have an emphasis on economic competition and consumerism, and on the other, the notion of participation and equality for citizens.
In this system we also have a conflict between the idea of “goods” (not just “consumer” goods) being available to every person if we work to raise the overall level of well-being in society, and the idea of a kind of zero-sum game of prosperity. We can see the rising tide has not lifted all boats; when someone “moves up” others are probably either staying where they are, or moving down. “Mobility” does not occur in a vacuum, and now the shrinking and destabilizing of the professional classes is occurring alongside universities’ expansion.
Increasingly it is universities that are viewed as the cure-all for the chronic affliction of economic regression. On the one hand they are expected to increase “innovation”, the magic bullet of the moment. On the other hand, they should be training appropriate human capital for the workforce, and the individual benefits to this are expected to come in the form of increased income, which is often used to justify tuition expenses.
But the university itself has been changed. The massification of university education means that even as accessibility has increased, the university field itself has been stratified and hierarchized, no longer automatically providing “elite” credentials and social capital that formerly allowed a small group to continue its entrenched dominance (or in fewer cases, for less prosperous individuals to join dominant groups).
All this is to say that what’s expected is for education to transcend its context, which is one of neo-liberal marketization, increased competition (for individuals, organizations, and nations), and unstable government funding. But how can education be required to transcend the strictures of capitalism (and indeed, help individuals do the same) even as it is being increasingly subject to them? If education is to be the “answer” then it must undo what we’ve already done, somehow–even while it’s a product of, and affected by, those conditions.
When we talk about “mobility” I think what we need is a re-framing of the issue. Can education continue to drive this very particular model of “progress” with which we’ve been living for so long? Can education perpetuate the illusion of endless potential prosperity, while itself subject to austerity? There is no cure-all, and the notion of education as providing access to higher levels of socioeconomic status is one that must be pulled apart.
The danger of the assumptions I’m describing is the consequences of education’s “failure” for the educational professions and those working in them. Education has been subject to attacks at the primary and secondary levels as those forms of education have been seen to fail at their appointed task. Now that a PSE credential is seen as almost a necessity (for a “good life” or at leave to stave off unemployment), universities are beginning to be subject the same attacks. But the attacks will be more intense given that the price paid by individuals for their university degrees is continually spiraling upwards. It’s no coincidence that the mobility debate is occurring in the wake of new tuition policies implemented in England, where students have now seen a tuition ceiling rise from £0 before 1998, to £9000 in 2012. Unsurprisingly, one new argument in the UK is that “if the sector cannot prove its social worth then it can only expect further cuts” (Atherton).
This requirement of “proof” is only one more way in which education is being scapegoated for problems that require changes to other areas of society and governance as well. To abuse a hackneyed metaphor, how do we untie (or slice through) the Gordion Knot of inequality, when it seems engendered by the very system we have created? This deeply complex problem can’t be solved by universities–which are a part of the unequal system as well as a part of the answer to it–even if we try to make them “accountable”. If this is the answer being provided for economic regression, I think it’s time to re-focus on the big picture and ditch the reductionist, responsibilizing rhetoric.*
*But not the alliteration.