A recent article on Slate‘s website came to my attention only because so many academics in my personal Twittersphere were reacting negatively to it. The article caused outrage with its discussion of EdX founder Anant Agarwal’s suggestion that professors who create and present material for (video-based) MOOCs could be replaced by Hollywood stars, who would lure more students to enrol in and complete the courses. This is presented as the logical solution to the problem of needing more camera-savvy and student-friendly presenters, since not all profs are up to the task. Further commentary from Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun is supportive of Agarwal’s approach. I won’t link to the Slate piece here, but you can Google “The new rock-star professor” (if you must).
The article captures our attention by positioning Agarwal’s and Thrun’s comments within a particular frame of speculation, i.e. that professors could be “replaced” by stars who appeal to the “masses” in a system that un-bundles the work of teaching into user interface design, content production, “delivery”, and assessment. It’s not a neutral framing, because it puts forth a vision of education that subjugates the expertise of faculty (and of educators in general) to the logic of markets and to the “big data” that are assumed to generate more important pedagogical insights than experienced professionals can. It also conflates learning with “content delivery”, espousing interaction and personalisation while in practice apparently relying on what Freire called the “banking model” of education.
But to turn back to Slate, they’re certainly not the only publication to realise that anger generates interest, that there are ways of making academics angry, and that this anger leads to pageviews (maybe we should call them “rage-views”). Slate’s a bit late in catching on to a game that’s been played successfully before by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Washington Post, The Economist, Forbes, the New York Times, and others. Popular articles include those that take on the work-life balance and/or salary of the “average” professor, or that reek of unexamined privilege and spark strong feminist or anti-racist critiques, or of course those that pronounce on the future of higher education, which is conveniently subject to apocalyptic speculation that can continue ad nauseum (because the future is always…the future, right? Fair game!).
This time around the article was written by Jeff R. Young, who’s also the tech editor for the Chronicle. In fact part of the piece is a modified excerpt from his e-book, the title of which contains the words “MOOC”, “high-tech”, and “disruption”. Based on its Amazon.com description, the book looks more like a cram guide for busy senior administrators, to whom I’d recommend instead Audrey Watters’ blog Hack Education. In the meantime, academic rage at Young’s article has probably brought a good deal of attention to his book (I couldn’t tell you if it’s boosted sales).
Taking apart articles like the one Young published in Slate is practically a bore at this point. It so clearly sets out to prod at academic sore spots, taking consumerist logic to extremes while playing on a major theme from recent higher ed reporting (MOOCs can hardly be called “news” by now). Even better is that authors who write on this topic don’t need to make up their own extreme speculations, since the quotes they’re using are taken directly from ed-tech celebs like Agarwal and Thrun whose popularity in turn is strengthened by their edgy proclamations. The excerpt doesn’t address whether stars like Matt Damon would be willing to work for free in the name of a good (educational) cause. But the “logic” reflected both in his comments and in the way they’re framed by Young could be said to assume the insecurity of “Ivory Tower” academics facing impending obsolescence, while playing up the often-self-fulfilling predictions made by ed-tech upstarts – “Casting Damon in a MOOC is just an idea, for now” (emphasis added).
I was thinking of all this during the panel on higher education and the media that I attended last Friday afternoon. I thought the facilitator (Anne McNeilly) and the three journalists on the panel (Léo Charbonneau, Scott Jaschik, and Simone Chiose) did a great job of explaining the context in which coverage of education issues is produced, and how this connects to the kinds of critiques they hear about that coverage. Not only are universities (for example) complex institutions with many facets that aren’t entirely visible even to those who participate in them every day; journalists must also develop ways of “finding” the stories and making them relatable to a much larger audience than the those assumed by most individuals, and they must do this with resources that are limited and not necessarily predictable.
The economic logic of the media, particularly those sources that operate primarily in online territory, tends to be one of attention. Linkbait is linkbait, and even the most offensive article can bring attention and start a “debate” that draws people back to the site repeatedly either through comments, or through a subsequent series of “response” articles. The idea is to gain readers, whereas for some academics, it seems the general goal is the opposite: to shave one’s audience down to the narrowest slice of an expert readership. While academics engaging in this kind of practice could be (and have been) accused of a form of professional solipsism, on the other hand media priorities in some cases encourage particular forms of gleefully narcissistic provocation, which we see in various mainstream publications (here’s an example; and its antidote). These are all dynamics that must be taken into consideration by those working in either higher education or journalism (or both) if coverage of postsecondary issues is going to work for “both sides”, i.e. for both educational and media institutions, as well as for their publics.
For some reason, in the last few months I’ve seen a number of articles and blog posts about the nature of “public intellectuals” – how to define the term, to whom it applies, and of course, the long-running series of “critiques” that discuss the failure of public intellectuals and what contributes to it. Maybe I’m just more attuned to the topic because I worked on the Public Intellectuals Project for a year. Or maybe it’s the fact that, uncomfortably, I started to hear the term being applied to me – and I had to ask myself why I wasn’t exactly happy about it.
There are plenty of people who have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what it means to be an “intellectual”, and/or a “public” one. I’m not one of those people, so (ironically) I can’t claim that expertise; for me the issue has come up only through practice, not theory. But the use (and abuse) of the term “public intellectual” reveals much about the attitudes people hold towards it and whatever concept it represents to them. I’ve seen it placed in the same category, or conflated with, terms like “pundit”, “guru”, “talking head”, and “celebrity”. These refer not only to a type of public figure, but to one who may be viewed as a self-proclaimed expert. Often these references mock the assumed self-importance that must surely accompany not only the willingness to be “public”, but also to take on “intellectual” as a public persona.
According to their critics (for an example, try this article by Omer Aziz), public intellectuals have supposedly “failed” or “died out”, and there are two popular arguments about why this has happened. The first, most common argument – set out by Russell Jacoby and re-articulated repeatedly since then – blames the university and the professionalization of academe. Increased specialization is the culprit here, and the academic system that rewards those who tailor their work to others in the field for purposes of professional advancement, rather than to audiences beyond it. The meaning of “public” in this equation, tends to mean “non-specialist audiences” or more broadly, “outside the university”. In truth, academic culture in general implicitly encourages a low regard for those who work in the “public” eye, which is connected to the assumption that communicating with non-specialist audiences means “dumbing down” one’s message. This is part of why, in spite of the push for more “engagement” with publics beyond academe, these activities are not professionally recognised in the same way as more traditional activities like peer-reviewed publications.
The second reason for the “death” of public intellectuals is of course the Internet, which has polluted the pure pool of intellect with the corruption of superficial self-promotion, and…wait a second, I thought being “public” meant we were “impure” anyway? And since when was academe free of self-promotion? As you can see, there are plenty of contradictions here. Yet the Internet is feared and loathed as the catalyst that allows almost any person to speak out on any topic (though whether and how they are “heard” is a whole other issue). It offers us no traditional filtration system for determining who is a “real” intellectual and who isn’t, who has the “right” to speak and who doesn’t. Never mind that this also provides the opportunity – which some must see as a threat – for new voices to be heard, those of folks who’ve traditionally been shut out of “public intellectualism” and who may now have the opportunity of showing why they have every right to take on that role. Call me naive, but given the excellent articles I see appearing daily not just in mainstream publications but also on blogs, the picture looks far more complex than “the Internet corrupts intellectual life”. I think what we could and should be asking is not “who has the right” to be called a public intellectual in the age of the Internet, but which ideas (and individuals) seem to gain significant currency in this new context – and why.
I think underlying much of the criticism is a projection of desire and expectation, the hope that such a public figure will take on the tasks, and risks, that we ourselves cannot (or will not). At the same time there is skepticism and resentment, that the attention is directed at a particular individual – do they “deserve” the weight given to their words? How do we know? Why should they be the ones to whom we listen? What should they be allowed to say – should they stick to their areas of expertise, or provide commentary on other issues as well?
Generally, the articles that bemoan the “death” or “failure” of public intellectuals also include the author’s chosen examples of those who have succeeded. Those examples are telling – as is the fact that the “public intellectual” must be anointed by others, never self-described. Indeed, in some of the articles I have read, there is a sort of pining for a lost world of “real” intellectual selflessness, for the “generations of writers and thinkers for whom the demands of either the university or mass media were a minor concern, if even that”. How interesting that this era seems to coincide with the one wherein such activity tended to be institutionally limited to a homogenous intellectual elite of white males, in spite of so many others who have made significant contributions both then and since.
And yet I think all that I’ve said above provides us an explanation as to why many who would seem to belong in this category, and who have indeed been consigned to it, seem to reject the term or claim it doesn’t apply to them. It’s because once you’ve been labelled, there’s no winning: you can’t self-identify as a “public intellectual”, or you’re automatically either shot down, accused of “failure” to achieve unwieldy political goals, or simply assumed unworthy of the title. But if someone else describes you as such, can you accept the description without being seen as a “tool”? I wonder if this is why, as Andrew Potter discusses, there were some key figures (such as David Suzuki) who weren’t willing to include themselves in a recent book on Canadian public intellectuals. But in his review Potter makes a good point, which is that there’s no going back to the “golden age” so often invoked by critics – and that this isn’t a bad thing.
Howard Rheingold, the longtime Internet commentator and UC Berkeley lecturer, uses the term “crap detection” to describe the process of determining whether online information is credible or not. What Rheingold calls “crap detection” is also known as information literacy, and in my case it was acquired partly through a degree in communication studies with an emphasis on analysing mainstream media coverage.
I thought of Rheingold’s ideas, and my own mass comms background, the other day when I came across an article by Douglas Todd from the Vancouver Sun titled “The pros and cons of foreign students.” This article is taking on what is currently a hot topic in Canadian higher education. The issue is only likely to heat up further in the coming years, given that Canadian universities have finally begun to vie for a bigger slice of the international student “market” in which countries like the UK, Australia and New Zealand have already established themselves as desirable destinations.
The first thing I noticed, which for me is always something worth pointing out, is the use of the term “foreign students” as opposed to “international students.” While the terms are used interchangeably, they each have different implications. While “international” is descriptive in terms of students’ national origins and/or citizenship, “foreign” suggests strangeness and unfamiliarity, or “other-ness.” There is other language alongside this, which depicts international students as a horde that will overrun Canadian universities – including “flood of foreign students”; “the river of foreign students”; and “this growing educational army.” The language often used to argue against allowing immigrants into a country is here used alongside the argument that “foreign” students are “crowding out” worthy Canadians.
Another, related thing that stands out about this article, but which isn’t entirely obvious unless you do a little bit of digging (i.e. spend five minutes with Google), is the use of particular voices for commentary. For example, it’s not clear why a political science professor without apparent specialization in higher education, Dr. Philip Resnick of UBC, was chosen for extensive commentary – rather than a professor who is an expert on the subject. Such experts do exist in Canada, and indeed within British Columbia where some of the “locals” in the University of British Columbia faculty of education include higher education scholars Donald Fisher and Amy Scott Metcalfe, both of whom have expert knowledge of higher education policy in the Canadian context.
Mr. Todd then discusses in his Vancouver Sun piece, the use of international student tuition to provide revenue for Canadian universities. The professor who is quoted “acknowledges he’s never researched [the] financial claim” that international student tuition covers all the costs of the students’ education – which it would have to do, if it were to be a source of revenue. But it’s simply not credible then to turn to research from the United States as a means of implying that international students could be costing Canadian taxpayers additional funds, rather than bringing in money for universities. If we don’t have the Canadian numbers on this, then extrapolating from research done in the United States is like comparing the proverbial apples to oranges.
If we check up on the scholar who produced this research (Harvard economist George Borjas), we find that its author generally takes an anti-immigration (and anti-international student) stance, which fits well enough with the fact that he “discovered foreign students have displaced local students, particularly white males, especially in graduate schools.” His research (PDF) is being quoted alongside Canada’s Centre for Immigration Policy Reform, which is a conservative anti-immigration think tank with “official spokespersons” who are members of the conservative and libertarian Fraser Institute.
The author also raises issue of language fluency, which “some local students say is harming the quality of classroom interactions”; he quotes studies that “find many international students are showing up in classes with poor skills in English,” though Dr. Resnick admits that “some [students] are surprisingly good.” One wonders why this would be a surprise given the number of “foreign” countries where English is spoken and/or taught in schools. A colleague who is a Mexican national and permanent resident of the UK commented that it might be a challenge even for those who speak English as a first language to pass the TOEFL or GRE, given the high level of fluency required to do well on those tests. In a recent University Affairs opinion piece (not cited by Mr. Todd) the same issue was addressed and provoked a heated but thoughtful debate about the linguistic readiness of EAL students, which I think shows that while there is substantial disagreement about how prepared the students are for academic success in Canada – it also demonstrates that we can do better than anecdotes and stereotypes in our coverage of this topic.
Lastly, the subtitle of the Vancouver Sun article mentions “pillaging” the best students from “poorer” countries, which would have been an interesting point of discussion, and it’s certainly been addressed by other authors in the recent past. However, even this was addressed in ways that invoked racial and class stereotypes, e.g. by calling the (Asian) students “richies” and quoting the author of a “popular novel” titled Crazy Rich Asians, while not addressing at all the critique of “brain drain” from other nations that have scarce human capital and may lack adequate educational infrastructure to train skilled professionals. There is plenty to discuss here but some of the most salient problems seem to have been avoided or ignored.
It’s a real shame to see this kind of superficial reporting on such an important topic, especially when stereotypes of race and class are being invoked, something that highlights what many students already face when they come to Canada from overseas. I believe that the recruitment of international students raises complex ethical issues that will need to be addressed in the coming years as Canadian universities try harder to fill enrollment gaps due to demographic changes. But these points will require debate that is equal to the nuances of the subject – something that certainly wasn’t being provided by the Vancouver Sun this week.
As my last academic event of the season, I attended Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education in Toronto on June 20th and 21st. I’m not going to write about the panel in which I participated (“Who are the MOOC users?”, with Joe Wilson, Aron Solomon, and Andrew Ng), since I’ve already spent enough time thinking and writing about that issue of late. But there was another very interesting theme that I noticed coming up throughout the conference. In a number of the sessions I attended, I heard emphasis being placed on the need for researchers and academics to communicate more with publics beyond the specialist audiences that have, until recently, been the norm.
This language of “engagement” has been taken up ever more enthusiastically by funding agencies and universities, often alongside the concept of “impact”, the latter term having already become influential (and embedded in the logic of research governance) in the UK. However, in all this talk about “engagement” and public communication it seems that less attention is being given to the question of which academics participate in this process – who can make use of the opportunity to “engage”, and why.
For a start, it’s somewhat disingenuous to discuss the “responsibility” for academic public engagement without considering the risks that this involves, and for whom that risk is most significant - i.e. most likely those already in marginalized positions in the institution and in society. The point about risk was not addressed explicitly in discussions I heard at the conference. In spite of the rhetoric about “impact”, the fear that many graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) feel – and the anecdotal evidence of folks being told not to get involved in certain kinds of activities – suggests that “engagement” must happen on terms explicitly approved by the institution, if those involved are seeking academic careers. Grad students are not generally encouraged to become “public intellectuals”, a concept that regularly provokes critiques from those both within and outside the academy.
Not only was risk left out of the picture, but the discussion wasn’t adequately placed in the context of increasing amount of non-TT labour in academe. Those not fortunate enough to be on the tenure track still want to be (and are) scholars and researchers too; but it’s harder for them to contribute to public debates in the same way because they don’t tend to have a salary to fund their work, or a university “home base” to provide them with the stamp of academic credibility. I noticed at one panel there was also a discussion about tenure and academic freedom, and the argument was made that profs with tenure don’t speak up enough, given the protections they enjoy. Again, I think the more interesting question is about who gets to speak freely, with or without tenure, and why. Do all tenured faculty get to assume the same kind of “freedom” that someone like Geoffrey Miller does (or did)? What will happen to such freedom when the work of academics is further “unbundled”, as with the growing proportion of low-status contract faculty?
Blogging of course falls into the category of “risky practice” as well. Writing a good blog post actually takes time, effort, practice, and a lot of thought. But what’s interesting, and perhaps predictable, is that blogs were dismissed as not credible by at least one participant during a Worldviews panel that was about the future of the relationship between higher education and the media. In fact a specific comment referred to ECRs “trying to make a name for themselves” through social media, as if this is merely a form of shallow egotism as opposed to a legitimate means of building much-needed academic networks.
This seems particularly short-sighted in light of the intense competition faced by graduate students and other ECRs who want to develop an academic career. To suggest that ECRs are simply using tweets and blogs as vacuous promotional activities is an insidious argument in two ways: firstly because it implies that such tools have no value as a form of dissemination of research (and development of dialogue), and secondly it invokes the idea that “real” academics do not have to descend to such crass forms of self-aggrandizement. Both of these points are, in my opinion, simply untrue – but then again I’m just “a blogger”!
If universities are going to help educate a generation of researchers who will cross the traditional boundaries of academe, they will need to support these people in a much more public way – and in a way that will be reflected by the priorities of departments and in the process of tenure and promotion. Yes, we have the “3-Minute Thesis“ and “Dance Your PhD“, but not everyone enjoys participating in this competitive way – and myriad other forms of public, critical engagement may be less well-accepted. Universities may make the claim that they value such forms, but who other than well-established researchers would be willing to speak up (especially about the academic system itself) without the fear of making a “career-limiting move”?
Those starting out in academic life need to receive the message, loud and clear, that this kind of “public” work is valued. They need to know that what they’re doing is a part of a larger project or movement, a more significant shift in the culture of academic institutions, and that it will be recognized as such. This will encourage them to do the work of engagement alongside other forms of work that currently take precedence in the prestige economy of academe. Tenured faculty are not the only ones with a stake in participating in the creation and sharing of knowledge. If we’re looking for “new ideas”, then we need to welcome newcomers into the conversation that is developing and show that their contributions are valued, rather than discouraging them from – or chastising them for – trying to participate.
A note from the web editor: A related story that you might also find interesting is the recent University Affairs article Nothing about us, without us, which looks at community-engaged scholarship in Canada.
There’s a lot of discussion among academics these days about how to use new media in ways that are productive and engaging, in ways that help us build networks and share resources. But last weekend, we got a taste of what happens when social media work to reveal and amplify the biases that are operating in academe (and elsewhere) on a regular basis. Dr. Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, decided to tweet about how he believes fat students should not consider doing a PhD because they don’t have the “willpower” for it. After all (according to his logic), if they don’t have the self-discipline to go on a diet, how could they complete an advanced degree?
The online reaction was immediate and intensely critical. Syracuse University professor Collin Gifford Brooke observed that Miller “progressed quickly through the life cycle of denial: he initially defended his statement, then deleted it, then apologized for it, then disavowed it, and finally, when pressed by his university, claimed that it was part of a “research project.” He then made all his tweets private. Since so many people had already captured images of the tweet, deleting it was pointless and only served to highlight that its author wasn’t willing to leave his opinion in plain view. I saw it myself when Ed Yong, a science writer and journalist with over 35,000 followers on twitter, posted a screen capture.
Soon the post had ricocheted around the Internet and since academics tweet more on the weekend, the news travelled fast; many people sent emails to the chair of Miller’s department at the UNM, Jane Ellen Smith. By Monday, there was an article in Jezebel and Miller’s post had generated attention from other news sources, as well as a new tumblr blog inviting fat PhDs to submit photos of themselves as a refutation of Miller’s “#truth”. Smith, recognizing a public relations crisis, created a press release that also included a video. This departmental response contained the information that Miller had described his tweet as part of a “research” project, a claim that was greeted with skepticism by online observers.
Certainly if one insists on using Twitter in this way, one needs to accept the consequences. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen commented that “we need professors who understand why you cannot be a jerk on social media.” But does the visibility make the attitude worse, or does it merely bring attention to the fact that academe is not exempt from those attitudes that exist everywhere else?
This highlights the conflict between our assumptions about the “life of the mind” and the realities of prejudicial assumptions based on physical characteristics. Colin Gifford Brooke writes of his experience that “as a fat academic, I was thrilled to be in a field where (ostensibly) I would be judged for the quality of my mind rather than the “failures” of my body.” But of course, there is no guarantee of moral superiority in academic life. That a professor like Geoffrey Miller – one who has been rewarded and validated by the increasingly competitive institution of academe – feels free to demonstrate his prejudice in such an overt fashion, shows that it is still acceptable to hold such biases. When the attitude was expressed publicly and pointedly, many people were shocked; and yet no-one who has experienced fat phobia would have been surprised.
The real issue here is of course not (just) that one person demonstrated an opinion that reveals a deeply problematic attitude on his part. It’s that he seems to have felt confident enough to believe the majority of readers (and colleagues?) would either agree with what he said or let it pass without a significant reaction. In other words it’s systemically acceptable not only to hold such opinions but also to state them and act on them; this professor is only alone in his visibility.
Social media, as usual, have served to amplify a micro-aggression that occurs regularly in everyday life. After all, we live in a world where female athletes are publicly criticized for their “heaviness”. Where girls as young as 5 years old are planning their first diets, are still learning this from their mothers, who learned from their mothers in turn, seeing the same messages reinforced daily in the media and in casual conversation; and where fat folks are causing serious damage to their bodies not by being fat, but in the name of being “thin” (please – do read those linked articles).
And academe is a part of this world. I have dear friends who face the job application process with even more trepidation than the average, knowing the discrimination that women in particular face when they do not conform to acceptable norms of body size. Would they like to assume they will be judged for their minds alone? Of course they would, but that assumption would not reflect their knowledge of the (social) world and their past experiences in it. So let’s stop talking about how we can avoid being jerks online, and start asking how we can change the attitudes behind that jerkdom, which exist everywhere and which are the roots of the behaviour we claim to deplore.
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.
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.
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.
So much interesting Canadian PSE news has been popping up in my RSS feeds lately that I had a hard time deciding what to write about this week.
I think, perhaps because of all the other education-related news, that very little attention has been paid to the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology report entitled “Opening the Door: Reducing Barriers to Post-Secondary Education in Canada.” The first Senate report on PSE since 1997, it “looks at both the financial and non-financial factors” involved in PSE accessibility.
There is a lot that’s interesting about this report, which addressed the federal government’s involvement in postsecondary education, and “how PSE can be made more accessible using the tools available to this level of government.” This included strategies for Aboriginal education and improving enrollment of other under-represented groups.
But there were only two news items that I could find relating to the report. One was from APTN on April 9, and addressed the proposals on Aboriginal education. The other came from PostMedia on April 4. The PostMedia article, “Tuition fees not major factor in post-secondary enrolment, report finds”, mainly emphasized only one of the report’s conclusions, that “while much of the public debate on access to PSE revolves around the cost of tuition, [...] the major barrier to accessing PSE is failure to complete Secondary education.”
Given the context of rising tuition, massive student protests and diminishing government funds, the political implications of these arguments about accessibility show why they were chosen as a focus for a news story: “the report runs counter to a common refrain among students that tuition fees are too exorbitant” (my emphasis). But there were 22 recommendations made in the report, and this focus on tuition was clearly geared to contribute to a particular side of a particular debate.
As presented in the Senate Committee report, the primary argument for accessibility is an economic one based on the idea of “human capital” development. Canada’s government must begin to take an interest in national coordination of education, because otherwise national competitiveness will suffer. It’s this argument that leads to the most comprehensive recommendation, #22 (a), the formation of a pan-Canadian education strategy including the “creation of an independent Canada Education and Training Transfer to ensure that there is dedicated funding for postsecondary education and training” (currently PSE funding comes from the Canada Social Transfer).
If a dedicated federal transfer were created for PSE, then the federal government would want to be able to monitor how such funding is used, especially given the accountability issues of the past. Sure enough, “encouragement” for tracking PSE dollars would be built in to the recommended system: “based on success in enhancing the accountability of a dedicated PSE Transfer account, the Federal government [should] consider increasing the Transfer funding using the 1994 levels as a target” (my emphasis).
While in Canada education is under provincial jurisdiction, this kind of arrangement could bring more clout to the federal government. If we consider what’s happening at the Tri-Councils right now, then the long-desired accountability seems to fit plausibly into a larger context of increasing government control over economic development through control over PSE.
Another implication from this report, relating to centralization of control, is that of standardization. The idea that the federal government and CMEC should work to provide more information for students, including about “the costs and benefits of obtaining a post-secondary diploma or degree”, seems to entail an increased expectation for universities’ self-monitoring and perhaps a movement towards some kind of national system of assessment. Indeed, one part of Recommendation 22 is “a standardized data collection and reporting mechanism for monitoring and evaluating progress toward the participation targets.” Also suggested is a national credit recognition program so that students could see their PSE credits recognized across provinces.
I do wonder why this report seems to have been “buried” in the media; I think it demands more attention given the scope and depth of the recommendations (the report runs to 114 pages with appendices) and their possible consequences for Canadian PSE. Perhaps nothing will come of it – after all, the Canadian Council on Learning made similar points in their final report, which were dismissed by some as the self-serving suggestions of an organization trying to justify its own existence. Are we seeing a re-hash of what the CCL had produced, now made more acceptable through the stamp of a Senate committee? Or are the policy points just too difficult to be dealt with at the national level? Time, perhaps – 180 days from the report, in fact – will tell.
By now, many of you may have seen or heard about the (infamous) Washington Post column of March 23 in which author David C. Levy argued that most professors should teach more because currently, they don’t put in enough work hours.
Those of you working in universities already know that there’s a significant leap in logic required to get from “professors are not efficient enough” (they don’t provide us “value for money”) to “professors should teach more”.
“What about the other work academics do?” might be the first question that occurs. Indeed, partway through Levy’s article research work falls off the agenda, becoming part of the spare (wasted!) hours that academics spend not teaching. Administration or “service” work doesn’t count. And as for the hours spent preparing classes, this is an argument swiftly dismissed by Levy, who maintains that “the notion that faculty in teaching institutions work a 40-hour week is a myth”. I’d argue that Levy’s “30-week academic year” is the myth we should be dismissing.
The “big picture” for this column is illustrated early on in Levy’s argument: he’s framing the “inefficiency” of professors against the rising costs of education, particularly to students and families through high tuition fees, which have led to increased debt burdens. This high cost is positioned alongside the individual economic necessity of having a post-secondary credential, as expressed by the highest levels of political authority (President Obama) through policy programs and endorsements.
The response to this column was immediate and generally very negative, on Twitter and also in many of the comments on the blog (and in quite a few longer written responses; here, and here, including one by Paul Krugman of the New York Times). There was even one post arguing that managerial logic of efficiency simply wasn’t being applied in the right way by Levy in his opinion piece.
For some time now I’ve been paying attention to the way universities and academic work are depicted in the media. During my undergraduate degree I became interested in discourse analysis and the political economy of media, and the politics and policies affecting education. Looking at the media coverage of education debates has been a natural extension of those interests (in fact, I’ll be presenting on this subject at this year’s Canadian Communication Association conference). Over time I’ve written multiple blog posts and essays about media coverage of universities, and media analysis is also a part of my dissertation.
I think that’s why I find myself disappointed but unsurprised by the kind of shallow parody provided by Levy’s column, mostly because I follow the higher education news and I see a lot of pretty frustrating stuff being passed off as serious/informed analysis. I understand if that sounds high-handed, but I think most professors, for example, could provide better commentary and/or analysis than David C. Levy – and would probably be responsible enough to do so (as several of them have done already).
But most people working in PSE aren’t really contributing to the larger discussion in a visible way. When the arguments are informing public conversation and political debate, we need to pay attention to, and provide a response for, what’s being said. I think the often shallow and ideologically polarized (and polarizing) media coverage about higher education shows us that facts will not be enough to make our argument heard; there are so many contextual factors working against us that we need more.
As one retort not only to the Levy article but to all the simplistic and reductionist coverage of PSE issues, Lee Skallerup Bessette proposed a “DayofHigherEd” for today, Monday April 2nd, 2012. All academics – including those off the tenure track – are encouraged to blog, tweet, comment and generally communicate to “outside” audiences about the work they do during an academic day (Twitter hashtag: #DayOfHigherEd).
As part of my contribution on Twitter today, I’ve set up a series of timed tweets of my past blog posts relating to relevant PSE issues. We need to relate the misconception that “most professors don’t work hard enough” (and other stereotypes) to larger issues in PSE, and I think “Day of Higher Ed” could be a great way for us to start opening up that discussion.