A central part of my research project is the way organizations communicate, and the organizations I focus on are universities. So when it comes to undergraduate education and university experience, an important question I think we need to ask is this: what’s the message that students receive from universities? I’ve been thinking about this lately, and was discussing it again last week with students in one of my tutorials. Here are a few of the thoughts that came out of that discussion.
Relevance and clarity
No matter how much information we provide–and indeed, often because of the amount of information provided–students are likely to feel overwhelmed. But in spite of the efforts that universities put in to welcome new students to campus each year, it seems students still have trouble getting the right information at the right time. A common complaint I’ve heard has been that relevant policies, procedures, and guidelines, such as those pertaining to the acquisition of credits towards programs, or add-drop dates, are buried in obscurity rather than highlighted for students before it’s “too late”. It simply isn’t enough to say “the information is on the website”, when it could be located somewhere non-intuitive, or when in some cases a policy could have been announced up-front. So the problem is more than the lack of information about a specific policy, rather it’s a lack of understanding of the overall system (more on this below). The answer isn’t about “spoon-feeding”–in fact, if we start explaining to students how the system works and what kinds of information are important, they’re more likely to be able to navigate it autonomously in the future.
Media and messages
Good communication isn’t just about content and timing, it’s also about the use of appropriate channels. One of my favourite examples is email. Though frequently tethered to their smartphones, many undergrads really don’t seem to rely on email the way their professors and TAs do. I learned from the start, when running tutorials, that though the university assigns every student an email address, relying on this address is folly because usually the students don’t check it. Since they also don’t use email as much as I do, they’re not likely to go to the trouble of setting up the university account to forward mail to a personal one outside the university system. At this point, I tend to ask during the first class for “the email address you actually use”, and I try to use it sparingly, knowing that many of the students might not see the message until long after its relevance has expired. I haven’t personally figured out a solution to this challenge, since text messaging feels much too personal and no-one seems to like Twitter (for example).
Familiarity and connection
In the past I’ve had students come to me for academic and career advice, and even for letters of recommendation–bearing in mind that I’m not a professor and I certainly don’t have tenure, so my name isn’t likely to do them any favours on a grad school application. For many students it’s become more difficult to connect with tenured professors, since universities have expanded and come to rely much more on short-term faculty appointments. Why, then, are students not seeking out their academic advisers? I think it’s because as their TA, I’m the one who’s most available to talk–and with whom they had some regular contact, in a somewhat less formal setting. I’ve probably read and assessed their writing, so I have a sense of what they’ve been up to. This raises the issue of the need for human connection in our universities. Perhaps in the past we had such small universities that this was not something that needed to be explicitly addressed. Large universities often seem to be low-trust organizations, but students are looking for someone trustworthy to help them navigate through their time in the organization; what they need is a “way in”, and what we need are more ways to help them find it.
Holistic and coherent communication
As I’ve mentioned in a few other posts, the lack of direction compared to what is provided in earlier educational experiences can be particularly overwhelming (and upsetting) for younger students arriving right from high school. The university is a maelstrom of departments, faculties, courses, services, rules and policies, and people, all of which are unfamiliar to entering students. Undergraduates I’ve asked have said that the experience is overwhelming at least in part because of the very fragmentation that has accompanied universities’ organizational expansion (and bureaucratization). This includes a kind of fragmentation of the services available to students. When help is available, why do students frequently avoid seeking it? Are they perhaps intimidated or afraid, or do they not know what help they need? Each service may be located in a different office somewhere on campus, and staffed by completely different groups who may or may not communicate with each other. But students are not collections of fragmented parts, each requiring tending in its separate way–academic mentoring, mental health and personal issues, work and career planning, writing support. Is there a way to create a better-connected institution?
So what’s the message that students receive from universities? From asking undergraduates, it sounds like oftentimes it’s an incoherent, authoritative, and monologic one. This tone and delivery in and of itself can be off-putting enough that students might feel uncomfortable seeking help. For example, being told “that information was/is available to you” (i.e., “you should have known better”) is not a helpful approach when students may be confused and in the middle of a crisis, seeking support. One thing that’s missing is the understanding that rather than just providing students with lists of available services, we need to de-mystify the university itself; instead of trying to create the perfect bureaucratic system (which is impossible in any case), we could show students how systems work. This is also part of the “tacit” knowledge that students gain from being in university; to help students understand the institution, we need to make that knowledge explicit–to communicate it.
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.
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.
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.
This week it’s back to Big Post-secondary Reports, and I’m going to take a look at an issue that’s been looming ever-larger on the Canadian PSE horizon this year: Canada’s position in the international education “market”, and the ways in which this is being developed and expanded actively with government support.
On July 27th, a report was released focusing on the overall economic impact of international students in Canada. International Trade Minister Ed Fast then asked for the report’s conclusions to be incorporated into the results put forward by the $10-million Advisory Panel on Canada’s International Education Strategy (led by Amit Chakma, of Western University). On August 14th those results arrived in another report, “Education, a Key Driver of Canada’s Future Prosperity”, which also placed much emphasis on the economic gains brought by international students to Canada.
Another related development, less discussed, is that at the end of July Minister Jason Kenney announced a new policy initiative that will be designed to “crack down” on exploitation in international education (“visa fraud”), through issuing student visas only “on the condition that individuals enroll in and pursue studies at an approved institution and compliance will be monitored”. The arguments being made here can work in two ways: on the one hand, the government can claim to be protecting international students from fraud committed by organizations that aim to make a profit from them. On the other hand, they can claim that the policy protects Canadians from being exploited by those students abusing policy “loopholes” (if such loopholes actually exist).
It seems, from the news coverage, that there’s nothing other than than anecdotal evidence (i.e. no actual research or statistics) to support such a policy in the first place. However, according to Kenney “the proposed changes would address the protection of students’ rights and the image of Canadian schools abroad” (my emphasis).
It’s interesting to see these interventions being planned at the federal level–but it makes perfect sense in (economic) context. Immigration policy, for example, has a relationship to post-secondary education through the government’s agenda to develop or obtain as much “human capital” (i.e., educated/skilled people) as possible and keep it within national borders. There have been a number of policy changes made over the past five years or so that contribute to this goal. International students also have positive effects on the local economies of cities and towns, and of course on tuition revenue for universities.
Importantly, in both the case of a proposed international education strategy and that of Kenney’s immigration announcement, the issue involved is the regulation, coordination, and communication required for Canada to win its rightful place in the “global talent market” (note the language of the “creative class” theory coming in here). The panel’s report argues that Canada must develop a cohesive strategy for marketing and recruitment of non-Canadian students–and Kenney’s announcement suggests some of the policy tools that may be used to regulate them once they arrive. Students, like other imports, are a resource that must be governed; and Canada, in turn, is a product to be marketed to them.
Canada is being positioned as a potential “loser” in this global contest for human capital, while other countries have been “getting ahead” already with slick branding and appropriate policy change. For this reason, Canada’s government is looking to the U.S. and to the U.K., and then to other countries with more marketized education environments, including Australia and New Zealand. Not only Europe, the U.S., and Australasia are recruiting; countries like China are now setting ambitious targets as well. All these countries have been able to “respond” more easily to competition because they have national ministries or departments of education that can coordinate such a strategy. But Canada “lags” in part because of its lack of federal oversight and cohesion; this is where the call for coordination comes in.
It’s just as interesting to look at the framing in the report (including its repeated use of the word “bold”), rather than its actual recommendations. Alex Usher writes that the report contains contradictory assumptions about the purpose, and thus the method, of international recruitment. One the one hand, using international education as a funding source for universities means (potentially) lowering academic standards. On the other hand, trying to attract the “best” students means investing more in scholarships and other attractions.
A specific recommendation is that Canada should increase its numbers of international students “from about 239,130 to 450,000 in 10 years–from kindergarten through Grade 12 and post-secondary institutions–without taking away seats from Canadians” (Globe & Mail). But Paul Wells argues that even these numbers are not particularly ambitious: “The panel’s recommendations are bold only in comparison with a policy of doing nothing. [...] Chakma wants to double the number of international students in Canadian universities [over 10 years]; that represents an annual growth rate of 7%, which is lower than the rate of growth over each of the last two years.”
While it’s difficult as of yet to draw any solid conclusions about the final details of implementation, one thing’s for sure: in spite of the non-economic arguments also put forward, the overall focus is on Canada as a national (education) brand, one that is now competing against others in an international market. What effects this might have on PSE institutions, and whether the brand will hold up under the scrutiny of “student-consumers”, remain to be seen.
Yesterday, as I was taking a short break between grading assignments and exams and working on my dissertation, I found myself amazed to be reading an article from the Guardian UK wherein the author argued that in spite of what others might say, academe is not a stressful place — in fact it’s the best possible place to work.
This article, which is obnoxiously entitled “Academia, stressful? Not for me!”, is by graduate student (postgraduate, in the UK) Katie Beswick. Ms. Beswick writes, after a cursory nod to the legitimacy of other people’s stress, “I’m familiar with the problem. But, personally speaking, I still don’t get it.” She then proceeds to list the reasons why academe — or rather, a very idealized version of it — is the ideal work environment.
I want to make it clear that I do not see the university in a wholly negative light — of course not. There’s a reason I’m there. Indeed, I want to understand the way the university itself functions, and why, and how we can make it better. But I know the research and reading I’ve done about higher education suggests that this post’s author has been shielded from some harsh realities. This is why, when I read about her “instinctive inner eyeroll” at the “complaints” of others, I’m afraid my own physical reaction was something more akin to gagging.
Yes, everyone experiences something different in graduate school and in the academic job market and workplace. But what’s deeply offensive here is the imperious tone expressed, the personalization of the problem and the suggestion (assumption?) that those who criticize are merely whiners. All these are familiar means of dismissing the legitimacy of (well-documented) experiences of others. It’s impossible to take seriously an argument that describes “an onslaught of moans” from fellow students and professors and wishes they would “stop bloody whinging!”, given the context of the comments and the vast body of research literature that contradicts these superficial statements.
So if you’re a graduate student and you’re enjoying life, then let’s talk about some of the conditions of that enjoyment. Firstly, you made it in. That means you’re less likely to be from a low-income background, or to have suffered discrimination as part of a racialized group. You’re less likely to have been persecuted for being gay, lesbian, trans, or otherwise queer-identified. You probably don’t come from a “second-class” nation in the global hierarchy, one without the research infrastructure to support your endeavours, or lacking the kind of education system required to propel you into university in the first place.
It’s less likely that you’ve had family troubles that distract you from getting work done. In fact, your family probably provides you support — moral and emotional, financial, and perhaps even academic (you might also have a partner who now supports you in similar ways — particularly if you’re male). Partly because of this, you don’t work more hours at your outside job than you do on your studies — and your job is more likely to be related to your career goals.
You’re likely to be free from health problems that could prevent you from getting academic work done and from earning a living. You’re free of significant debts, or perhaps you don’t have to worry about tuition payments, rent, or costs of upkeep for any dependents. You’re not a single parent. You don’t suffer from anxiety or from any mental heath issues that might impede your academic performance or social integration in the academic environment. You probably don’t have a disability; you’ve probably never lived on food stamps or other forms of social assistance.
In a Master’s or PhD program, to do well you need a good relationship with your supervisor, as well as appropriate mentorship and an academic environment that’s supportive and integrative, and some degree of financial stability. These supports help students finish their studies within appropriate time limits.
And if you’re not at all worried about finding an academic job, is there something you know that the rest of us don’t? It seems more appropriate to consider what information one would have to lack, in these times, to pose the question: “what’s everyone so stressed about [in academe]?” As one commenter responded, “I think once you finish your PhD and start looking for an actual job, you’ll be able to answer your own question quite easily.” Or perhaps a quick read-through of the comments on my article about PhDs and mental health.
Do the contextual factors described above necessarily prevent us from achieving our goals in academic careers — or from being happy? No, definitely not. But we must acknowledge that these factors contribute to people’s experiences, and that they make academe harder for some than for others. While universities are indeed admitting more students who don’t fit the “ideal” model, there’s an underlying model that persists. The university is a changing environment, and the demands of an academic career are changing too. This has increased the pressure on early-career academics, not the least in the UK, and it must be taken seriously as a cause of re-stratification and increased gatekeeping.
Is there a productive way to make the point Ms. Beswick is getting at? Of course there is. How about “I’ve had a great experience in academe, and I’m thankful for that because I know it’s not that way for everyone. These are the things that made it good.” That would be a better way of “framing” the truth, and it might even lead to consideration of what makes life “better” for some of us and less enjoyable for others.
Today’s post is about education in the United States — not higher education, but the ongoing (yes, 100+ years!) wrangle over public primary and secondary education reform.
This month, a new Gates Foundation-funded research project was highlighted by Diane Ravitch in her blog. The research involves the use of “Galvanic Skin Response (GSR)” bracelets on students to measure, physiologically, their engagement in learning activities. While I was already aware that the Gates Foundation has been in pursuit of ways to improve the U.S. public education system — often through the use of technology — this latest item is so odd that I thought, at first glance, that it might be something from The Onion (at first the only article I could find was in the UK Daily Mail). But then I found an article on the Washington Post website (and Ravitch’s blog posts), and realized the study was serious.
In past posts I’ve already written about teaching the “ineffable”, but the extremity of this experiment highlights one of mass education’s perpetual dilemmas: how (and why) do we quantify the process of education when we don’t even know, really, how to “measure” the result? The Gates-funded experiment reflects more than just a flawed approach to assessing pedagogy. It demonstrates the potential conflation of pedagogy and management, in a context where the rhetoric of “accountability” and “efficiency” promises solutions to structural funding problems in education (at every level).
Though this research is meant to be “cutting-edge”, a number of ironic historical antecedents sprang to my mind. Firstly of course, the idea of “Galvanic” bracelets sounds like something from the age of 18th century electrical experimentation. Perhaps next we’ll see the suggestion that we try passing electric currents through teachers to make them less boring for the students (or they could wear these).
The GSR idea is also reminiscent of the late 19th- and early 20th-century concern with measurement of (physical) phenomena for maximum efficiency and productivity, and “scientific management”, which was closely related to production-line techniques of Fordism. Lastly, the bizarre attempt to map the physiological responses of children to specific mental states, based on technologically-mediated measurement, seems to revert to the same behaviourist models that have regularly been favoured in large-scale education initiatives (including standardized educational testing) since the early 20th century. Rather than seeking new ideas to solve old problems, it seems the Gates Foundation is funding further variations on several popular and long-running themes.
Shortly after the article appeared in the Washington Post, The Gates Foundation changed the wording of the research description, insisting that the experiment is “not related to teacher evaluation” — even though the Clemson University project seemed to have been connected with something called the “Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team.” And even in the altered version, the words “measure [student] engagement physiologically” are still key. The question of why we would want or need to do this is not sufficiently answered.
In related news, the aforementioned Diane Ravitch — who was Assistant Secretary of Education for George H. W. Bush and for Bill Clinton, and is now a vocal critic of standardized testing — was booted from The Brookings Institution after criticising Bush-era “education reform” in a new book. (She also criticized the bracelet idea through other posts in her blog, including here and here). Ravitch notes that the break with Brookings happened shortly after she criticised Mitt Romney’s education plan in two different blog posts.
If Ravitch’s critiques are being dismissed, why would wacky-looking research from the Gates Foundation be given legitimacy? One reason is that Bill Gates and other wealthy entrepreneurs have a now-popular argument on their side. Like almost everyone else, they think education isn’t “working”, and because this society views wealth as a signifier of success and thus lends a broader credibility to the wealthy, such individuals possess both the means and the influence to put personal beliefs (and critiques) into practice — even if they’re not really experts on education.
Massive education schemes implemented on a grand scale have never been driven solely by “scientific” (educational) research — not in the U.S. and probably not anywhere else, either — and certainly there is reams of research on pedagogy that’s been produced over the years, much of it ignored. We should be asking why some knowledge receives so much serious attention while other research is ignored, and we should be looking to the past to help find an understanding of this. The search for replicable, standardizable link between the external/physical/”objective” and the internal/mental/”subjective” should not be the only or even the primary approach to evaluating pedagogy, yet because this meshes well with existing systems and stands to benefit large “players”, the agenda is pursued.
In some ways the role played by huge “venture philanthropy” organizations such as the Gates Foundation simply represents another form of plutocracy, one that Canadians should watch carefully given the federal government’s current penchant for cutting basic research and statistics, and also the attacks on credibility of academic researchers. We’ll only “know” what’s available to us, and it may only be coming from those who can afford to produce it, and who often command a premium for their troubles.
This week I’m taking a bit of a break from the news and paper-writing to recover from the past six weeks of work. I’ve been pondering the writing “process” and why/how it works (or doesn’t) for me and others.
A friend wrote a few days ago and asked if I had any advice about getting over the fear of writing that tends to alienate us from the process. At first I thought I didn’t have any advice to give, since I still struggle with writing so much myself. My ideas seem to require long periods of percolation and then writing often happens in short, intense bursts, which is inconvenient in the academic context. Like many others I also suffer from the fear that everything I write is somehow inept and ill-formed, unworthy of being paraded in front of an audience other than myself — and I constantly question every point I’m trying to make. But I’ve had to make writing “work” somehow, so what does that process involve?
I actually have little “rituals” that I use to get myself into gear for writing when I know I have a lot to do. I think those mundane, taken-for-granted habits are interesting to share, because they reflect our relationship with writing as a process and they tell us something about approaches to learning and thinking.
For example, the physical space in which I write has an effect on how much I can focus. I’ve been attributing this, perhaps erroneously, to the fact that I lean heavily towards “visual-spatial” modes of thinking and understanding — and I always feel as if physical disarray only exacerbates a kind of mental clutter from which I’m already suffering. I think this is why I often do housework before sitting down to write, and on writing breaks. For me, cleaning is a great way to take a break because it’s a bit mindless, it provides some physical activity, and there’s some immediate gratification from the results.
When I’m actually piecing together what I’m writing, I struggle the most with structuring my ideas. I’ve always had a problem translating what I’m thinking about into the relatively linear approach that seems to be demanded by words on a page. I end up using a lot of charts and mind-maps, and the process of (literally) drawing out ideas helps me to understand them more and to make connections and solidify points. In the past I’ve had charts all over the walls around my desk, reminding me of the “big picture” I’m trying to look at even as I work to refine some small element.
Most of us have experienced “writer’s block” at some point, so how do we generate the momentum to return to our writing over and over, re-articulating the same ideas in better ways, or trying to develop new ones? One way I like to do this is by going through mental exercises — like returning to the “big questions” that triggered my interest in what I’m working on. What question was it that grabbed my attention? What connection provoked a response? Another approach involves allowing myself to jot a lot of notes without having to connect them; then I can cut and paste them into groups that make sense later on. Often when I’ve written a draft, even if I’m not happy with it, I’m afraid to chop it up for re-editing in case I “lose” something; so I start another document instead, and allow myself to cut and paste as much as I want.
A lot of “blocks” — and procrastination — are caused by underlying fear that nothing we can write (or think) will be good enough. Perfectionism, which can be fuelled by that fear, is an oft-cited problem for graduate students and this manifests regularly in the act of writing.
I try to deal with my own perfectionist tendencies by finding ways to take the pressure off myself. I pretend that no one will read what I’m writing, other than me — not that this necessarily helps, since I’m my own worst critic. During a conversation on Twitter Andrea Zellner raised this issue, saying she “actively [ignores her] inner critic in a big way.” Since “no writing will ever be perfect” we need to know when it’s “good enough” so that we can move on, share it with others, then accept criticism if and when it comes (deadlines often help with this!).
Fear also begins to wear off when we receive supportive and constructive feedback over time. That’s what helps us to build up enough fortitude that we begin to overcome our fears about public exposure (for me, blogging has really helped). For graduate students, writing is often an anxious process because of the awareness of a new level of competence required, and new audiences to which one’s writing (and one’s self?) will be exposed — peers and colleagues, journal editors and readers, conference attendees. The art and craft of writing is highly personal and is approached in different ways according to temperament, experience, convenience, compulsion and emotion. What methods do you use — and do they work for others?
What I’m writing about today concerns no specific policy initiative or teaching strategy. It’s about pedagogy, and the ways in which psychology and social norms come to play significant roles in the way we behave and interpret the behaviours of others – in the classroom and in other academic settings.
The specific example I’m addressing is a recent upsurge in online discussion about introverts and extroverts. The most obvious trigger for this was publicity around the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (whose TED talk is available here).
I admit I find much of the discussion about “pros and cons” of these types frustrating; it feels like working within a binary schema that leads to a self-fuelling debate, since each “side” makes arguments that (often justifiably) annoy the others, who respond in their turn. And I don’t think Cain’s perspective gives us answers about how to address this underlying issue of “types”; it tends to draw on a discourse of introverts as oppressed and rejected by mainstream society, a perspective that isn’t helpful because it alienates extroverts and generalizes about everyone else.
Another recent article by William Pannapacker has tossed new fuel onto the fire for academics specifically. Pannapacker has angered many people with his argument that teaching style can be biased against introverted people – but then again, I know I could readily identify with what he seemed to be describing, particularly in terms of the ways that academic competitiveness requires confidence and social skills as well as focused, solitary bookishness. But I think that’s where Pannapacker makes an excellent point: he describes academe not as an environment that necessarily privileges either introverts or extroverts, but one in which we are required to vacillate competently between the two poles.
At this point I should probably reveal my own “type” – I’m an introvert, and on the Myers-Briggs test I always get the same result (INFJ). This result is apparently so undesirable that I’ve had people tell me, “I was that type but I reformed myself, and so can you!” So I was fascinated when I got into a lengthy Twitter discussion about this issue, with several others who were closer to the opposite end of the “spectrum.”
As “extremes” on an imagined scale, it’s clear that extroverts experience classroom discrimination as well, in very different ways. This is why I think the extremes are the real issue – they’re “pathologized,” made into a kind of illness to be cured (not just a problem to be corrected). A certain desired or imagined norm is being reflected through the ways in which deviance is disciplined (to use that lovely Foucauldian language).
So when we talk about introverts/extroverts, we’re always talking about something other than what is expected (or desired) – it’s an exception to an unwritten rule.
We can uncover the assumed norm by looking at what’s considered “abnormal”. Don’t like participating in games and social activities? Perhaps your “withdrawal” is part of a mental health problem; there’s “help” for that (SSRIs and anxiety medications). Are you “acting up” in class, talking over everyone, practically jumping to your feet with questions? That could be a behavioural issue – maybe you’re narcissistic, perhaps you need some Ritalin, or we could shift you into a “special education” class until you can learn to sit down and be quiet. The point is that there’s a meridian of normalcy, and everything else is just a certain number of degrees closer to – or further from – that desired state of behaviour.
In the end, it’s only logical that we need a degree of social success to get by in life, since we share with other people a social world. As an introvert I can say that learning (teaching myself) how to be around people has been a long and difficult process with which there was no sympathy and little explicit help available. I did experience my personality type as something “wrong” with me, something that had to be corrected. Only now that I’ve met many others like me do I feel as if the way I “just am” is something that isn’t just “my problem.” But there are very extroverted people who feel the same way.
The classroom is a space where ideal behaviour is shaped and modelled; this goes for graduate school as well as kindergarten. Teaching does play a significant role is this, since teachers are assumed to model all kinds of behaviours (hence the cultural obsession with teachers and their “quality” – it is moral and political, not just academic).
For those of us teaching: what can we do, and can we work within this arrangement to ensure that those whose behaviour doesn’t fall within “normal” parameters are accepted, reassured and guided without being “policed”?