This post is about one of my favourite issues in education and various areas of knowledge policy: the attempt to use policy to reliably generate the unpredictable.
As an example, one of the themes that recurs in certain kinds of policy design is the idea of creating a geographic hub of innovation, a golden patch of tech turf that connects universities with businesses and governments, and generates technological change that pays off for all involved: in other words, a new “Silicon Valley”, which is the touchstone for these kinds of discussions. Re-creating Silicon Valley has become a policy goal, with the desired result that economic competitiveness will follow; hence the appearance of “science/research parks” and “innovation districts”.
There’s plenty of research about innovation, organizations, and technological discovery and development, that strives to provide explanations about why we see these much-lauded historical irruptions of creativity, innovation, and of course commercial success. The idea is to be able to make this happen in a deliberate way by adding the right ingredients into the socio-political-economic mix.
For example, I think there’s an implicit understanding that space and physical proximity have effects on eventual outcomes in “discovery” when creativity and innovation are the goals. At a time when we’re hearing so much praise about online spaces and their possibilities, I think this is another sign that certain configurations of place and space are scarce commodities in research and higher education. The value of these commodities is such that they’re assumed to be part and parcel in the construction of conditions where “innovation” will flourish, and in elite contexts they’re accommodated as such.
Serendipity in teaching and learning, too, depends partly on the unpredictable outcomes of social contact. Creative sparks can fly when we’re bumping up against other people and their diverse ideas and perspectives, the eclectic combinations of knowledge they’ve built up over time. Each person who takes in knowledge also changes it through the process of knowing. In this way, it could be said that all education is built on a series of chance encounters.
Of course we can’t really plan for chance, which is possibly why it’s the one ingredient left out of most of the formulae we see being applied. Chance is inefficient per se, problematic in terms of the actual goals of planning, which require the assumption of at least some form of certainty. Better to make sure that other things happen, the things we can guarantee, speaking in those terms instead of the nebulous shades produced by the idea of serendipity, accident, and so on. The power of the serendipitous lies in its very unpredictability, but try explaining that in a grant proposal.
Here in Canada, the federal government isn’t much into chance, unless you count the gamble we take by developing policy without sufficient evidence available to inform it. This government is unlikely to solve Canada’s perennial “innovation” problems by targeting large amounts of funding to those projects it deems most meritorious. Nor will students find answers for themselves – or for the much-lamented “skills gap” – by trying to engage in the kind of advanced futurology that is now expected of them as they prepare to enter the job market.
To return to Silicon Valley and its clone zones: where knowledge is tied to governance, where policy must make predictions, we place bets on future success by attempting to emulate success seen elsewhere in the past and present. The historical analysis is in some cases a selective one; rarely if ever do we see calls for military involvement in new innovation hubs, yet Silicon Valley’s prosperity was built more on US military funding than on venture capital, as is pointed out by Steve Blank.
For good education and research to happen, even for those eventual economic benefits to materialize, we need place/spaces where we can allow for possibilities and work through failure and permit experimentation, where we can learn how to take chances and follow our noses – while encountering others – rather than just building on an assumed formula for success. After all, it doesn’t matter how high the stakes are; we can’t know the future, and if we can’t imagine a new model of success, we won’t be able to deal with whatever changes the future brings our way.
Recently, the American Historical Association (AHA) posted a policy statement that caused some controversy among academics, because of its recommendation that universities should allow junior scholars the option of a 6-year embargo on electronic publication of their dissertations.
The argument goes that younger or early career researchers (ECRs) need the option of an embargo because widely-available dissertations might not be acceptable to publishers in book form. Some universities make it mandatory for students to submit their dissertations to an open online database, so the embargo would ensure that ECRs have the option of keeping their research private until it’s ready for publication.
While this policy is only about ensuring that grad students can have their dissertation embargoed if they want, rather than telling them they have to, what’s revealing is not only the argument that’s been provided but also that there’s been such a strong reaction and an intense debate generated by the issues involved.
Some commentators have viewed the AHA’s strategy as “empowering”, but others question the idea that only or primarily a book can gain you entry into the profession, and that publishers won’t deal with a book that has previously been available online in dissertation form. Critics argue that there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that pre-published dissertations are off-putting for academic publishers. The debate also seems to beg the question of what exactly the difference is between a book and a dissertation; they’re very different forms, with radically different audiences in mind. Not only that, but the main customers for academic books have been neither academics nor the broader public, but libraries, as pointed out here. Barbara Fister notes that “[l]ibraries have been buying fewer books no matter whether they are based on dissertations or not; they won’t buy more books because dissertations go offline.”
The key issue here isn’t the difference between dissertations and books. It’s the academic career, and what “counts” towards building it – and additionally, what “proves” quality in a candidate for tenure. The AHA post states that “although there is so close a relationship between the dissertation and the book that presses often consider them competitors, the book is the measure of scholarly competence used by tenure committees” (emphasis added). This is not just about who gets to publish what, and when. It’s about entry into the academic profession, and what kind of scholarship is seen as valid when assessing who should be on the tenure-track or tenured, and who should not.
This is why the AHA’s stance is being framed by some as “protective” of ECRs who, if forced to make their dissertations widely accessible, will put themselves (or their careers) at risk by jeopardising their chances of having books published. As the statement reads, “History has been and remains a book-based discipline, and the requirement that dissertations be published online poses a tangible threat to the interests and careers of junior scholars in particular” (emphasis added). At a time when competition for academic jobs is fiercer than ever, their argument has a lot of weight.
All this is wrapped up in the shift away from physical copies of dissertations filed on library shelves, and toward the digital databases that allow access to anyone who can get online and run the right search – a scenario involves a different set of assumptions about who can access the work, from where, and with what results for the scholarship (and scholars) involved.
I think an important issue here is the purpose of scholarship, which shapes the work that happens and what “knowledge” is created through it. As others have discussed, historical research is a public good as well as an academic one; what use is there in assuming a few narrow forms of dissemination are the most appropriate, and will continue to be so? A particular understanding of purpose is driving the assessment of scholarly worth. If the purpose of scholarship is to get you a book contract and ultimately, a tenure-track job, then the exclusivity that is so cherished in this process needs to be maintained. If the purpose of publishing is to “launch” one’s career in an appropriate fashion, then there isn’t much room for serendipity or risk in that process.
In terms of purpose, a related example is that of the REF in the UK, which is designed to assess the “quality” of research produced by UK universities. Many critics have already pointed out the systemic effects of this process, which is also tied to funding. There is a connection between academic systems of assessment and professional advancement, and the way scholars go about their work (and make career-related decisions). Because tenure is hard to obtain, the fear factor is an important one for many junior scholars and the AHA’s initial announcement reflects this.
It’s the system in which we already operate that engenders risks from “openness”, risks that are more obvious and present for some than for others. We already have a system wherein keeping one’s work sequestered is still more of a failsafe way of building an academic career. This is why it’s so difficult to use moral arguments about the openness of knowledge: this openness hasn’t yet been institutionally validated to enough of an extent that ECRs are willing to stake their careers on it. That the AHA can argue it has also “supported” alternate forms of publishing and recognition, tells us that there may be an ongoing disconnect between what scholarly societies and funding agencies advocate, and what actually happens in a departmental hiring process.
The academic profession is in a period of flux in terms of what kind of work is valued, what forms it should take, and how it should be shared with others. In many ways academe is still in reactive mode regarding changes that have been happening for some time; technology has already helped to move scholarly activity beyond the limits of what academic career tracks have “traditionally” encompassed. Those hoping to become academics are now receiving very mixed messages about the limits of what is acceptable or desirable for professional credibility. This makes things difficult not only for prospective scholars but also for graduate supervisors and mentors who hope to support their students in developing academic careers.
If it’s less risky to fall back on an established understanding of what counts, if our decisions are governed by fear and anecdotal evidence, then the issue of giving junior scholars a “choice” seems almost beside the point. Choices tend to be governed by context. Maybe it’s time to work on changing that context, instead of trying to work within what are being treated as permanent boundaries.
Later this week I’m going to be on a panel about the inescapable subject of MOOCs, so for this post I’m thinking through an issue I’ve been noticing since I last wrote a big post on this topic, which was during the peak of the media mayhem in July 2012. For many of those researching higher education, even those who’ve been doing it for just a few years as I have, the ongoing hyperbolic MOOC debate that has hijacked the higher ed news has been quite frustrating. Of course, there is plenty of bluster on both sides of this debate. But it’s really troubling to see many perfectly legitimate criticisms reduced to straw-person arguments about “faculty fear“ (“those teachers just don’t want to lose their jobs!”), or about how those who are skeptical must be “against accessibility”.
So I would like to address this issue of “accessibility” that has come up repeatedly in MOOC debates. In articles that evangelise about the benefits of MOOCs, it’s often pointed out that there there is a huge (global) demand for higher education and that many eligible students are losing out due to lack of resources or to their location in “third world” countries. Even in richer nations, student loan debt has become a more significant concern over time, alongside rising tuition; and postsecondary education is becoming more of a financial burden for those who can least afford it. All this has happened in a context where the economy has changed significantly over a period of about 30 years. Socioeconomic mobility has been stymied (including for those with education), middle-class jobs are being fragmented and technologised, and young people are finding it more and more difficult to get a foot in the door. This is the “perfect storm” often referenced in arguments for the “urgency” of turning to MOOCs as a solution.
Lest you should think I am blowing proponents’ claims out of proportion, I’ll provide a few examples. Take a look at this recent article in the Guardian UK, by Anant Agarwal of MIT, President of edX. Agarwal claims that MOOCs “make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind” (note the ableist language – and the fact that he left disability off the list). Moving on, in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Mary Manjikian argues that MOOCs (and other forms of online learning) “threaten to set [the existing] social hierarchy on its head” and that we should “embrace the blurring of boundaries taking place, to make room for a more-equitable society”, which can be achieved through the dis-placement of elitist place-based education. And lastly, I point you to an article written by a MOOC user who epitomises the claims to worldwide accessibility that Agarwal so keenly puts forward: Muhammad Shaheer Niazi of Pakistan, who, with his sister, has taken numerous MOOCs and writes enthusiastically about the benefits of online learning.
I think these arguments beg the question – if MOOCs provide “access”, who, then, has access to MOOCs? What is required of the user, to get the most out of these online resources? To start, you’ll need a regular, reliable Internet connection and decent computer equipment, which are of course not free. Assuming you have the right tech, you’ll also have to be comfortable with being tracked and monitored, given that surveillance is required to “prove” that a particular student did the work (there is much potential for cheating and plagiarism). There are also “analytics” being applied to your online activities, so you need to be on board with participating in a grand experiment where the assumption is that online behaviour shows how learning happens. In these “enclosed“ MOOCs, there will be no private, “safe” spaces for learning.
And learning itself must fit the parameters of what is on offer – so the kind of “personalization” often touted is a rather limited one. You’ll be fine if you learn well or best at a computer, and if you don’t have any learning (or other) disabilities that require supports. The few demographics available also suggest that thus far, MOOC users are more likely to be male, white, to have previous postsecondary education, and (judging by course offerings) to be speakers of English, even while the actual pass rates for the courses are still proportionally very low. In terms of the actual needs of the majority of students, we should consider whether all this is really about privileged autodidacts projecting their ideal of education onto everyone else.
Questioning the quantification of assessment, the level of access, the cost of tuition, the endless search for “economies of scale”, and the funding troubles faced by public higher education, must happen if we are to find solutions to those problems. Yet plenty of people have been questioning these trends for a long time, and somehow the research they’ve produced doesn’t have the same appeal. Pro-MOOC critiques of the current system never seem to reference the existing literature about (for example) neoliberalism and the economization of education policy, increased privatization (from tuition fees to corporate influence on research), marketization and commercialization, and the unbundling and outsourcing of faculty work. Perhaps that’s because MOOCs would mostly serve to exacerbate those trends.
What then is the function of MOOCs in terms of “access”? It isn’t about extending real opportunities, because we live in a society and economy where opportunities are unequally distributed and even (online) education cannot “fix” this structural problem, which is deepening by the day; finding a solution will be a complex and difficult task. It isn’t about ensuring the students get higher “quality” of teaching, unless you truly do believe that only professors at elite universities have something to offer, and that all other faculty are somehow a sub-par version modelled on that template. Some have argued that MOOCs can reduce tuition costs for students, but surely there’s only so long a business can exist without making a profit, and the “product” clearly isn’t the same. The ongoing efforts to link MOOCs to the prestige of existing universities through accreditation deals are unlikely to leave these courses “cost-free”, and the hundreds of hours of work it takes to create one MOOC can’t go uncompensated.
Perhaps MOOCs in their revisionist, start-up incarnation are partly about projecting the possibility that even the most downtrodden can still do something to get ahead, at a time when the old path to mobility through hard work and (expensive) education seems less effective than ever. What could be better than more education, for “free”? In this sense, MOOCs really do help to “train” workers for the new economy, since they’re teaching us to govern ourselves, to be autonomous and flexible learners in an economy where businesses can simply refuse to provide on-the-job-training, instead holding out for the perfect custom candidate (while keeping wages low). This is framed not as a problem with business – or even with the long-term changes to the economy in general – but as a failure of education. Meanwhile, we’re encouraged to believe that we can mitigate personal risk by investing in ourselves, and if we don’t “get ahead” that way then it’s about personal responsibility (not systemic problems). If MOOCs “level the playing field” then no-one can complain when they’re left out of the game.
Who is most desperate for these possibilities? Maybe those folks will be the ones using MOOCs. But will the possibilities materialise into something real, for those who need it most, and not just for the few example “learners” who are invoked in MOOC-boosting articles and speeches? Are most current users there because they need to be or because they have no other option? Would massification through MOOCs be more effective that any of the other forms of educational massification that we have seen over the past 200 years – and if so, why? In what way will the new tokens of achievement be any better than a university degree at present, and will they translate concretely into opportunities for the least privileged? After all, isn’t that what “access” is about?
A deeper understanding of context is relevant to every argument being deployed. To return to Muhammad Shaheer Niazi, it’s clear that he actually exemplifies why we cannot make sweeping generalizations about students based on their location. Niazi describes how he had “access” to a supportive and education-oriented family; to “a very good school in Pakistan”; and to computers and books in his home. As Kate Bowles and Tressie McMillan Cottom have both pointed out, there are many families in the United States who wouldn’t be able to provide this kind of environment, and yet “Pakistan” is used frequently as a signifier of poverty, inaccessibility, and general disadvantage. Niazi’s piece shows us he is far from desperate – he is in fact part of the small international group of gifted and well-resourced students that universities most desire to recruit.
Because of the claims being made about disrupting hierarchies and helping the underprivileged, the MOOC trend calls on us to ask ethical questions. Questions about control, resources, and agendas; questions about who is excluded and who is included in this “new” landscape. Questions about how the story of this “phenomenon” is being re-written and re-shaped to reflect particular priorities. We’re seeing perverse exploitation of arguments about access, when the “solution” proposed involves breaking down the university into commodifiable, out-sourced units and reinforcing (or even exacerbating) existing institutional and social hierarchies. In the current political/economic landscape, where there are so many problems that seem intractable, the apparent concreteness of the MOOC “solution” is part of its appeal and also part of why uptake at traditional universities has been so rapid and widespread. But MOOCs are an answer that can only be posited if we construct the question in the right way.
Though it isn’t the topic of my current research, I’ve been interested in the Internet (as an object of study) for some time, in particular its possibilities for connecting people and helping them generate new relationships and forms of social support that might not otherwise have been available. I think this is because I’ve been engaging in forms of distance-networking for over ten years now, starting with snail mail and leading all the way to Twitter. I’m not particularly sociable by nature, because unfamiliar social situations tend to tire me out; all social interaction is a form of performance, but some people find it more taxing than others. Over time I’ve discovered that for me personally, it’s easier to cultivate an initial level of familiarity through mediated interactions, rather than through increased in-person socializing, because the latter tires me out too quickly.
While I was working on my undergraduate degree in Communication Studies, I did a project about how people conceptualise the Internet, as signified by the way they talked about it. I became interested in this because I noticed that people talked about “online” experience precisely as if it happened in a “world”, or a place, where they could “go” – even though clearly it wasn’t the same as the space they inhabited physically. Why was the sense of place so strong that it dominated our conceptual framing of the Internet? How have we come to experience a communication tool itself as being (or providing) a “space”, and what is that space like, compared to others?
The reason I started thinking about this again recently is that the debate about online education has become more intense, and along with it comes what is usually a subtext about physical vs. virtual. This division is emphasised, either positively or negatively (depending on the argument), when we see references to the Internet as set apart from “real life”. On the utopian side, some argue that you can “be whoever you want to be” online, or less dramatically, that the Internet provides flexibility and accessibility to education (for example) – that it is a “better” place. From the more dystopian perspective, technology cuts us off from “real” connections/relationships and experiences with other people, causing us to become too focussed on our tools and oblivious to their effects on our cognitive, emotional and psychological well-being; and it can exacerbate the “divides” we seek to bridge.
Like most binaries, this one is overly simplistic. Real/unreal, physical/virtual, utopian/dystopian, all these illustrate extremes when in reality much of the discussion is about grey areas. The critique of (and ongoing debate about) “digital dualism” is a good reminder of this.
I think online/offline is a useful distinction, but that relationships we develop online are not segregated from or less significant than others that start with in-person contact, nor are they part of a different “reality”. More and more, we see there are gradations, and newer technologies and tools further blur these lines. The friendship I have with someone because we saw each other every day during undergrad might not continue after the degree ends, whereas I might stay in touch for longer with people I’ve “met” only through Twitter interactions that have morphed into coffee dates. The practice of developing academic networks through Twitter is an example of how this fluidity works; for those without established contacts, chatting with strangers online makes it a lot easier to meet them in-person later at a conference.
All that being said, the emphasis on online education as an industry (or set of marketable services) has grown in the context of higher education’s increased stratification, loss of funding, and massification, so we have plenty of reason to ask critical questions about the nature of various spaces of learning and what can and does happen in them. What is the difference between sitting in a room with others, vs. being with peers or colleagues who are “there” in some other way? What about affect/emotion, how is this expressed and experienced by students working and communicating through the Internet, as opposed to in a traditional classroom (and how might they work together)? Shouldn’t we consider elements of privacy, when everything is being “shared” and/or documented online in one form or another? Who will feel free to talk? Will everyone be able to gain access?
We also need to consider how some of the assumed properties of the online environment are extrapolated and projected to form a new image of the student, the self-motivated and autonomous learner (autodidact) who is so frequently championed in techno-futurist rhetoric (in spite of the collaborative nature of so much of what happens on the Internet). But this type of person is still also a relatively rare learner, an ideal type to be plugged into the process of creating future policy. The “structures” created for Internet spaces may also be designed with such assumptions in mind. If we are going to acknowledge and accept the reality of online experience (and that education happens there), we need to think about how that reflects our other experiences in the world. As with all places, the Internet is more hospitable to some people than to others.
This past weekend I attended HASTAC 2013, held at York University in Toronto. This was the first HASTAC conference held in Canada, and about half the participants were Canadian. In fact, it was the first time the conference had (physically) happened outside the United States. The HASTAC (“haystack”) acronym stands for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory; it’s a “virtual organization” co-founded by David Theo Goldberg and Cathy Davidson in 2002, which functions as a kind of user-driven platform, a support system and a place of meeting and collaboration for scholars interested in technology, creativity, pedagogy and educational change. I became interested in learning more about the organization because I seemed to know a lot of people who were involved in one way or another. When I discovered that the 2013 conference would happen at York University, I realized I had a perfect opportunity to find out first-hand what kind of work was being created by affiliated scholars.
HASTAC isn’t the usual academic conference featuring a menu of panels packed with academic talks. It’s a bit of a smörgåsbord of goodies: alongside regular keynote talks, panels and posters, there were “lightning talks”, demos, performances, multimedia art and even a Maker Space. I decided to attend fewer panels and spend more of my time looking at exhibits, taking photos, and interacting with participants – I managed to see some fascinating things and meet many new friends and colleagues, some of whom I’d chatted with online but hadn’t yet met in person.
Friday’s schedule included one event I’d determined to check out, the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In, sponsored by the Rewriting Wikipedia Project. The idea for this event was sparked partly by research on the gender imbalance in Wikipedia editors and in the content on the website itself. One participant at the conference (Ruby Sinreich) was editing the HASTAC entry itself, and another (Michael Widner) worked on an entry for Caribbean writer Karen Lord – who then turned out to be on Twitter and started chatting with him. Though I hadn’t prepared myself adequately to write or edit a Wikipedia article, I did a search for noted higher ed scholar Sheila Slaughter and discovered that she didn’t yet have a page. I felt the urge to remedy this immediately, but didn’t have the time to dig in to the task (of course, others did – here is a report of what they achieved).
Near the Wikipedia room, like buried treasure, there was a distractingly entertaining Kinect demo happening. I’m not at all familiar with the technical terms and I couldn’t find the names of the creator/s (they were from OCAD, and the group included prof Paula Gardner), but I still wanted to mention this piece because I loved the idea: it involved generating different kinds of sounds through movement, for example if you walked forwards or backwards within a specific area, the music became louder or softer; if you moved left or right, the notes moved from low and “bassy” to high, tinkly sounds. I made sure to capture a video so the effect could be conveyed more directly.
On Saturday, in spite of missing the early bus to York I managed to catch most of the morning panel “Building an Academic Community for the Digital Age” with Fiona Barnett, Amanda Phillips, and Viola Lasmana. Each of the panel members made strong points about the need for mutual scholarly and personal support, the importance of the emotional/affective side of building connections and doing work as a community (not just as individuals), and the role of HASTAC in facilitating and working on/with these things. I won’t paraphrase too much because the presenters’ own words are far more articulate than mine on these issues (their posts are linked, above).
By Saturday afternoon it was our panel’s turn to present, and in a sense our theme was “community” as well. My co-panelist Bonnie Stewart introduced us as “the most ironic panel” at the conference: our session was called “Cohorts without Borders” (my slides are here), and indeed two of our panel members were unable to attend in person because of borders and barriers of various kinds. Our colleague sava saheli singh, an Indian citizen living in the U.S., couldn’t get a visa in time from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (she did her talk through Skype); and Trent M. Kays, who contributed a video of his talk and then tuned in via Skype, was unable to get funding for his conference trip (a special shout-out goes to Daniel Lynds, who provided crucial technical support for our presentations). This highlights a “missing piece” from the rhetoric about the international “talent market” and mobility of students, scholars and “knowledge workers” around the globe, i.e. that some can be mobile while plenty of others have their movements (and contributions) restricted by a lack of resources and/or by policies that treat people differently according to their citizenship status. This is also a crucial issue in any discussion about internationalization and access to the professoriate.
Later on Saturday evening, York’s Scott Library was the venue for an after-hours reception that featured a performance piece called Digitize and/or Destroy, by York librarians William Denton, Adam Lauder, and Lisa Sloniowski. The piece was designed to highlight the process of digitization (and the work of librarians) and the kinds of decisions that have to be made during it. Each participant was invited to select a book from a trolley, and the choice of either destroying it (several pages would be cut out and shredded), or digitizing it (the book’s cover would be scanned, meta-data recorded and posted to a Tumblr), or both – in whatever order we preferred. Some of the books participants chose to have shredded included “Wife in Training”, various Weight Watchers books, and (my pick) “The Tipping Point”.
This post is just a small taste of this year’s HASTAC conference menu. If you’re interested in reading more about the conference panelists and talks, HASTAC Scholars Director Fiona Barnett has created a roundup of blog posts about the conference, available here.
This past Tuesday afternoon I participated in another panel (‘tis the season!) about higher education, this time at the University of Toronto. The panel was part of a pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, addressing how the “pragmatic agenda” is represented in media coverage of higher education. According to the event description, this agenda includes a focus on issues such as privatization of costs (and tuition fees), technological solutions to systemic problems, the “completion agenda” and job training, and emphasis on the value of STEM disciplines alongside critiques of the liberal arts. The other participants on the panel were Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator was Rick Salutin. The keynote talk was given by journalist Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera.
I’ve been looking forward to Worldviews because media coverage of higher education is an area in which I’ve had an interest for some time. I think this is at least in part because my undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies with a focus on mass media and linguistics. In my MA thesis I analysed university PR, and since I started my PhD I’ve done several projects involving media coverage of university-related issues such as the York University strike in 2008-2009, and the CERC announcements in 2010, and written a few blog posts on the theme of media and academe. Aside from my interest in these issues, I also attended the last Worldviews conference and thought it was an unusually interesting mix of attendees (primarily from the media and from academe, and international in scope).
Before the event, we discussed the panel format and Mr. Salutin proposed a question in advance: “what are your frustrations and criticisms regarding media treatments of the pragmatic agenda in higher education?” The response I gave to this was that, probably because I research this area, I find oftentimes complex issues are simplified in media articles in ways that more clearly support one argument or another that is associated with some particular agenda. The way a problem is framed tends to point to a particular solution. Since so many problems seem to be framed primarily in economic terms, there is a certain reductionist logic that recurs in the discussions.
The example I raised was that of the media coverage on MOOCs. I’ve written a piece about this phenomenon already, and I’ve also been following the ongoing coverage from a variety of sources since it first exploded last year. During the panel discussion I found that while I wanted to use MOOCs as an example of media discourse, the debate drifted to the pros and cons of MOOCs and not to the way that they are talked about and positioned within existing political, economic, and institutional contexts and discourses. I think if we focus in on that positioning, there are clear connections to the most salient post-secondary “crises” of the day. This is part of why MOOCs in the abstract have become a kind of popular trope for educational change, if not in mainstream Canadian media, then certainly in the higher ed news and in a number of U.S. media sources. For example (pardon the scare quotes):
- Emphasis on curing a problem of “scale” through technological intervention, which is presented (inaccurately) as a form of genuine accessibility;
- Focus on “outcomes” rather than (educational) processes;
- Metaphors of “delivery” and “production” that point to the objectification and commodification of knowledge and learning;
- The assumption that what the university does can and should be “unbundled” for “efficiency” and “flexibility”;
- “Value” is defined in a specific way, i.e. economically;
- “Quality” is envisioned on market terms, e.g. “elite” professors (who efficiently deliver educational “content” to tens of thousands of students);
- Concomitant critiques of faculty mediocrity, particularly in terms of teaching, placed in relation to rising tuition fees;
- Framing of higher education “crisis” and necessary radical, institutional change with metaphors of inevitability such as “avalanche”, “tsunami”, “storm” and “wave”, all of which invoke natural disasters over which people have no control, and to which they must “respond” quickly and appropriately.
Further to the MOOCs example, we can also look at the amount of “debate” driven by big name players in (ed-) tech and publishing right now, and how the agendas there can play in to the fragmentation and privatization of higher education. This rhetoric supports the strategy of commercializing and commodifying education for a larger, international “market”. In addition there have been a number of articles in the mainstream press by “thought leaders” such as Clay Shirky and Thomas Friedman, that demonstrate false analogies and hyperbolic assumptions that fit with much of what I’ve described above.
Thankfully, raising this example didn’t totally derail the rest of the discussion, though overall the panel did make me wish I had the time right now to do more research on media coverage, particularly the “link bait” pieces that seem to be popping up with more regularity these days (such as the recent “don’t do a PhD” article in Slate, and last year’s Forbes article describing faculty work as relaxing). These provide us with another example of how important issues can be hijacked in the name of raising an angry response that generates pageviews – in other words, the changing political economy of the media interacts with the context of higher education and influences how it’s talked about and understood. I think that’s a good reason for us to pay attention to that relationship and to the kinds of talk it produces.
This week on Wednesday, my Twitter feed was swamped first with posts about the newly elected Pope (which I expected). What I didn’t expect was that by the time evening rolled around, the Pope tweets were being eclipsed by reactions to Google’s decision to “kill” its RSS aggregation tool, Reader.
Now, I use Reader a lot–every day–to sort through piles of higher education news, so I was annoyed by this news. It means I need to seek out a new tool and set it up, not just for my personal use but for the professional accounts I run as well. Thankfully feeds can be exported, so the actual transfer shouldn’t be a big deal. There are other options available, and more are being built. For me the issue is more the irrationality of dismantling a perfectly good tool (like when Tweetdeck was bought and destroyed by Twitter), but I’m leaving that aside for now.
What I want to address is the theme of digital moralism, which is of course nothing new, but which made another appearance in the Google Reader discussion. Some of the online responses I saw were both predictable and deeply frustrating in a specific way. The line of arguing often begins with “I told you so”, as in, “I told you that using a tool from an Evil Corporation like Google would come to no good”. Followed by, “If you just do X” (get your own website or server; write your own app), your problem is solved. Then: “What, you don’t know how to code? Everyone should know how to code. Why not teach yourself? It’s easy.”
There is an ethical edge to the responses that begins to come through as a judgement. Do you really want to support big corporations that dominate the Internet and academic publishing? Are you really so lazy that you can’t take time to investigate all your options, or learn how to create your own, instead of using commercial tools?
Considering those ethics, why don’t we take a moment to consider why, other than laziness, so many people might be using these tools and why they may not have the resources (time, money) or even the desire to choose differently? This has been addressed in a number of helpful posts, including those from Miriam Posner and Lee Skallerup Bessette, which address access as it relates to gender and other forms of privilege as part of the context of coding and of recognition in the Digital Humanities. Ernesto Priego has also written about the various facets (and degrees) of academics’ “digital literacy”. These discussions have become more visible as a part of the ongoing construction of disciplinary boundaries in that field: whose work is most valued as DH work, and why?
Another argument frequently raised is that we should make coding a part of school curriculum. Perhaps if many education systems were not already struggling with their current responsibilities, that would be an option. But it would require a curricular re-design that presupposes an awful lot of resources on the part of public schools and teachers. It also adds to the responsibilization of schools for solving problems that a particular group sees as absolutely pressing but which, in comparison to other issues, may not be the most urgent. I’m not saying curriculum shouldn’t change to reflect the realities of daily interactions with technology; I think it it should. But the way the solution is framed also needs to take into account the context of schooling, and the political struggles often involved in claiming certain subjects as “essential” over others.
That’s one interesting thing about digital moralism. It may be the “right” thing, but no-one is won over to the cause when they feel chastised for using a non-preferred tool, or publishing in non-open access (OA) journals, or for thinking “Python” refers to Monty Python. I am pro-OA, and against corporate monopolies, and I still feel alienated by high-handed retorts that assume everyone has what is necessary to implement the solutions considered most appropriate. What I need is another option, something other than just “learn to code”, something that takes into account my context and its potential limitations.
In my case, the main reason I don’t have a personal blog at all is that my blog is here, on the University Affairs website. This is why it’s a problem when I’m told to “just post your papers on your personal blog, instead of on [insert existing web tool here]”. I would love to know how to program, mainly because I’d like to build the Ultimate Twitter App, but this is a daunting task to a complete beginner and when I barely have time to work on my dissertation, it’s also not realistic. In fact it’s only a relatively recent thing that I have the means to access any of this information at all, and I freely admit that most of my self-discipline has been (and still is) tied up in my PhD work.
If you have the capacity and resources to do things on your own rather than using pre-fab online tools, then I congratulate you and also thank you for any contributions you make. Those of us without coding skills need to be appreciative of the work done by those who have them; without it, we could not do what we do online. We can also support their efforts in other ways. But do we all have the opportunity to learn the skills they have? Yes–and no. The availability of resources online is not enough. This is not just about whether we “really” want to gain skills; framing it in those terms is a means of assigning responsibility and then making a judgement about other people’s commitment to a cause. It also assumes, as Trent M. Kays points out, that we cannot have any understanding and appreciation of tools–or use them critically–without also knowing how to create them ourselves; and while I believe creation brings a special appreciation, it’s not the only kind.
Recently I wrote a piece for The Globe and Mail in which I argued that we should be encouraging Ph.D. students to learn how to communicate with broader audiences. One of the questions I couldn’t really address in that short article was: what’s it actually like to engage on those practices of communication, particularly as early-career scholars who might be working on PhDs and/or seeking academic employment? Yes, I discussed the positive aspects of public exposure, but what about the “flip side”?
There is one issue in particular that has been on my radar more than usual over the past few months. Public communication of almost any kind involves risk. When you stand up and say something “out loud”, you don’t necessarily (just) start a dialogue or deepen an existing debate. You’re also presenting yourself as a target. There is a certain loss of control involved: while you may well have taken the time to carefully articulate something in writing, it only takes a few moments for someone to make a snarky comment and post it, or to dismiss your views quickly on Twitter.
Thus in a number of ways, having a larger audience is a double-edged sword. It can bring more of everything; even though you’re likely to receive supportive feedback and open the door to nuanced discussion by widening the circle of readers, you also open yourself up to misinterpretations, criticisms, and sometimes insults, from a larger number of people. Yet while some may fear these negative outcomes as a result of speaking out to non-academic audiences, it is not only non-academics who are engaging in harshly judgemental commentary, garden-variety Internet snark, and even slander. Plenty of those “on the inside” are also willing to take aim at peers and colleagues, in ways that exacerbate conflict or show disrespect.
I can think of at least two examples of friends who have been dealing with public “responses” in this way. Tressie McMillan Cottom, a Ph.D. candidate at Emory, has dealt with ongoing attacks on her credibility and academic status that have been launched through Twitter, by email, and in online articles and comments. My impression is that most of these have been launched by other academics, including two graduate students who openly accused Tressie of plagiarism, unethical research conduct, and “lying” about the university she attends.
That incident in particular highlights the apparent irrationality of some of what one deals with when becoming a “public figure” as an academic. Tressie’s work on U.S. for-profit colleges and issues of race, gender and class is well-known and respected; hers is a strong voice on controversial and important issues in higher education, and she has already earned professional recognition for her contributions on this topic. The accusations made could be easily refuted with a quick Google search, and were (as usual) openly addressed by Tressie in her blog. So what was the point?
I think the actual logic comes through if we examine in more detail the comments being made about Tressie’s intelligence and, of course, her merit. For example, calling someone an “affirmative action admit” (in the context of U.S. universities) is a means of invoking someone’s race and/or gender as the primary reason for their presence in the university; this well-worn logic positions equity against “excellence”, and it is built on the belief that academics should, and usually do, succeed according to how much merit they have, rather than additionally through various forms of privilege, bias, and other circumstantial/systemic factors (a recession, for example). This assumed meritocracy is one of the deepest-rooted aspects of academic culture. It influences our understanding of the distribution of benefits and rewards in professional life, and it affects academics’ assessments of each other and of themselves–crucial to the process of peer review. It’s why, even though the discussion of privilege has entered academic research, we have mostly failed to turn the analytical gaze on academe itself.
Merit comes through again in a second example, that of Dr. Lee Skallerup Bessette, who has openly discussed her efforts to find a tenure-track position in an ongoing series of blog posts for Inside Higher Ed. It’s refreshing to see anyone willing to talk about this process, particularly in light of the critical problems faced by the growing proportion of “adjunct” professors in the United States and elsewhere. But it’s also somewhat depressing to see some of the responses she has received, such as these (anonymous) comments on a recent post about job market struggles:
“These issues are the result of personal decisions that you made; it may be time to take responsibility for those decisions.”
“As tempting as it might be to castigate the author for elitism and a monstrously inflated sense of self-worth, I won’t do that.”
“The world doesn’t owe us our dream job.”
These comments, besides showing a lack of empathy for another person’s situation, also reflect the sense of self-righteousness that results from a firm belief in meritocratic justice. Surely if she doesn’t have what she wants, it must be her own fault. Surely, if she had only worked hard enough and made “smart” choices, she’d be on the tenure track by now. How many others are thinking the same thing, without posting it? How many others are in Lee’s position, but are afraid that if they speak up, they’ll be told “you just aren’t good enough–move on”? Never mind that these commenters appear to be completely tuned out from the reality of U.S. higher education; they are familiar with the core values of academe, one of which is that merit leads to success.
Examples like these point to the reasons why there is ongoing discussion about “civility” that has unfolded on Twitter and in the academic blogosphere. In my opinion the underlying issue is not about Twitter, blogs, or social media. What should concern us is the way these media reflect and even exacerbate elements of academic culture that were already there to begin with, such as the emphasis on merit, and also a kind of performative proof of one’s own excellence at the expense of others. This latter issue is what Dr. Inger Mewburn, also known as “Thesis Whisperer”, discussed in her recent blog post on “academic assholes”. The post–which had 170 comments when I checked–describes the use of cleverness to disparage others while showing one’s superiority and gaining credibility among peers, something that many of us have witnessed in academic settings. As Inger states, “cleverness is a form of currency in academia” and one does not have to be nice to be clever.
What Inger highlights in her post also seems to be confirmed by the research I have been reading lately, which is about workplace harassment in academic settings, how it happens, and who is involved. I see plenty of connections between the tone, content, and apparent purpose of some people’s online behaviour, and the way that researchers discuss multiple systemic factors in academe that influence the amount of “bullying” that goes on, as well as how it plays out.
As Lee has pointed out, we shouldn’t be surprised if academics–particularly those who are members of marginalised groups–don’t want to stand up in public and criticise the academic system. And who would want to talk about personal challenges in their career, when that might betray a “weakness”? Many people experience doubt, anxiety, stress and loneliness in academe, and this aspect of the culture works as a form of silencing that reinforces the existing lack of critique, even as it denies the political issues faced by many young or early-career academics. For both Lee and Tressie, and for many others, the vulnerability of having a “public face” is compounded by gender, race, and institutional status.
Even while they bring risks, blogging and using Twitter–and other forms of “public communication”–provide ways of building not only an audience but also a support network. Those who’ve been attacked, harassed, and chided now also have legions of defenders ready with thoughtful comments, critiques, shared experiences, and resources for dealing with problems and resisting demeaning criticisms. Many of us have gained friends, colleagues, and new perspectives through these exchanges. But can we “speak up” in our own immediate environments? If and when colleagues and peers are judgemental and nasty “offline” and invisibly, who’s there to defend us in the much smaller (and more isolating) context of a program, department, or faculty?
Through the use of arguments and critiques invoking meritocracy–often implied more than stated–we are being taught an ongoing lesson about how to stay silent, and some people are being “reminded” more regularly than others. We need to pay attention to exactly how that lesson is being taught–online and in the “public sphere”, and in the physical and social spaces of departments and universities; both publicly and privately; both by known and by anonymous participants; and we must consider how the existing tropes of academe come to inform people’s actions in those spaces.
A few weeks ago on October 22nd, I participated in an Open Access Week event held by York University’s libraries. A deliberate attempt to generate a lively discussion, this event was titled “The Great Debate: Should the blog replace the book?”, and I was recruited to argue on the “blog side”. The other participants were Ian Milligan (University of Waterloo), John Fink (McMaster University), and Scott McLaren (York University).
This was an interesting debate, though I must say I wish I hadn’t spoken first–I’ve never been in a debate before, and in academic presentations (in my experience) we’re encouraged to focus on content over rhetorical style. So I had too many points and lacked a convincing style of conveying them, partly because public speaking makes me nervous. Needless to say, we were beaten out by the book, but of course now I can turn to my blog and add a lengthy post-script!
I should mention that at least a couple of the participants weren’t particularly committed to the positions we were asked to take. I had difficulty arguing against the book, even as someone who blogs, since I’m quite attached to the (hundreds of) books I have sitting on shelves around my apartment. My co-debaters were similarly positioned: Ian is actually writing a book right now, and on the book side, John Fink is Digital Technologies Development Librarian at McMaster, and he discusses in his blog how he, too, had problems coming up with an argument.
I’m also not very good at responding quickly to questions from an audience. I always feel as if my responses are going to sound uninformed, because I haven’t had time to think them through. There was one question in particular that stood out during the debate, probably because I simply didn’t believe anyone could hold to the opinion expressed. This question was about whether we viewed blogs as “entertainment” (and books as…not?). To me it seemed clear that “entertainment” was being positioned against something else with more inherent value–information, or knowledge, perhaps? I felt like reminding the audience that “Twilight”, too, is a book (with sequels–and I don’t think it started as a blog, either).
In any case, since I never think about academic blogs in this way, I had trouble coming up with a good response to the question. I explained that while I’m happy for people to find my blog “entertaining”–why not?–the actual goal here is to provide some critical analysis of issues relating to the academic research I’m doing. I believe the content of my blog differentiates it from, say, blogs about celebrity gossip or cooking (and the latter are still at least as informative as they are entertaining). And although I loathe the concept of “Edutainment”, I would also question the idea that the difference between entertainment and information is something simple and straightforward.
The problem with much of the critique of blogs is that there are too many generalizations. Categorizing blogs as “entertainment” means generalizing and extrapolating based on aspects of the nature of the medium, rather than on the content of particular blogs. In this debate, our primary focus was on academic publishing. For example, in using the term “accessibility” I was comparing blogs with the most predominant forms of academic publishing, the journal article and the monograph–not with cheaper forms of publishing that don’t require as much digital technology. So when the issue of “entertainment” was raised, it seemed inappropriate to the context in which we were framing our arguments.
A similar problem is illustrated in a recent blog post from Maclean’s, in which the author discusses how she was advised to stop blogging because it could negatively affect her career as a teacher. There is much focus on the form of blogging, but not on whether it was more the author’s writing and subject matter that was deemed problematic or potentially damaging to her professional prospects (as opposed to simply having a blog at all).
In academe, the negative assessment of blogs is widespread. Quite recently I saw one academic on Twitter refer to blogging as “easy” and I winced. I’d argue that like many things, blogging is “easy” if you don’t care about quality–if you don’t want to consider content or audience or style, for example. But anyone who does care about such things is going to argue that blogging well takes as much skill as writing in any other medium. I wouldn’t want a shoddy blog post published any more than I’d want a sub-par academic paper published in a journal, because it’s something I wrote, and it’s in public where people can read it.
Is blogging easy compared to “real” academic writing and its publishing process, perhaps? In academe we have the assumption that the peer review process guarantees quality–and thus blogs, which are not reviewed (in most cases), must be of lower quality than academic journal articles and books. This is tied up with the relative value of different kinds of writing (and indeed, knowledge) in the academic economy, and of course, to the current process of academic publishing.
But does the absence of gatekeeping necessarily mean that the ultimate “product” is of lesser worth? This is not just a philosophical question–how we answer it will play a part in the future of the academic profession, since faculty hiring and promotion depends so heavily on publishing. This is the context in which the question of blogs as “entertainment” was put to us as scholars hoping to participate in knowledge dissemination. This is a political context, a context of institutional change; even if such issues are entertaining, they are certainly not neutral.
I’m rather tired of seeing a certain kind of argument about university teaching being repeated over and over of late. In this argument, the lecture is set up as a “straw person” version of university teaching, and it’s then knocked down by assertions about the superior flexibility and convenience of the Internet and various forms of tech-mediated learning. I think there’s a lot of missing context for this argument, so I’m going to try to outline some of that here.
One of the latest iterations of it comes from Don Tapscott, who wrote an article for the Globe & Mail’s recent “Re:Education” series. In this article, the author employs a number of points that I find simplistic but in tune with the popular themes that recur. Firstly, he compares universities to “encyclopedias, record labels, and publishers”, in a position of peril where “the most visible threat are the new online courses, many of them free, with some of the best professors in their respective fields.” Next, he indirectly invokes the (much-criticized) “digital natives” idea to argue that students need new technologies: “There is a rapidly widening gap between the model offered by big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up immersed in digital technologies best learn.” The Baby Boomer generation were accustomed to “passively” watching TV, while young people today are used to interacting with multimedia technologies. Thus, the lecture is outdated: students now “need an interactive education, not a broadcast dating back two or three centuries”.
Those who’ve attended university have usually had at least one or two professors who weren’t any good at teaching and specifically, at giving lectures. What I find deeply uncharitable (and inaccurate) is to generalize this experience even to the majority of university teaching faculty. I’ve given academic lectures in various classes, and I can assure you there’s no reason to assume the speaker is simply “transmitting” information. One of the main underlying issues here is the assumption of passivity in the students, and of a transmission model of communication that has long been critiqued by communication theorists. Another is the generalization about faculty approach, as if those doing the speaking aren’t working to make their presentation engaging and responsive—and as if there’s nothing but lecturing going on in a course.
When it comes to critiquing the lecture specifically as a form and on most faculty as incapable of making it work for the majority of students, there’s another, more fundamental problem involved. A few years ago, back when we were still talking about the problem with ballooning class sizes, there was research being pulled out that suggested the lecture itself wasn’t a bad format, as long as the professor did a good job. Where is that research now? Or was it just that such arguments were needed more, back when we didn’t have massive online courses in which tens of thousands of students could, theoretically, learn from a single “best” professor? This preoccupation shows how we’re still trying to solve the main problem of massification in universities—the need for economies of scale. The lecture was what came closest in the past; the Internet is the new technological “remedy”.
What’s particularly frustrating about the critique of current teaching is precisely that it comes at a time when universities and faculty are under scrutiny for other reasons as well. As Jonathan Rees notes, there is “a cottage industry of pundits who gleefully suggest that faculty in every department of the modern university are somehow headed for the scrap heap”. Professors, apparently, don’t work hard enough and definitely don’t do enough teaching to begin with. This context is reflected in Margaret Wente’s latest column, which provides another good example of the superficial rhetoric about faculty and teaching (while reducing a complex policy debate to “access or quality”). Wente’s piece shows that the ongoing segregation of teaching and research (and general fragmentation of university work) is being justified through arguments about the low quality of university teaching. The plugging of teaching-focussed universities as the solution to funding problems should indicate part of why this kind of “differentiation” is continually presented as desirable.
As well as the segregation of faculty into “streams”, we’re seeing all kinds of proposals for getting rid of as many faculty as possible and replacing them with “superstars” (the “Mick Jaggers of academe”), or indeed, with robots that can perform the tasks currently assigned to teaching staff. But how are those superstars expected to teach? Often enough, what’s suggested is another large online course that seems to mimic the lecture-and-tutorial model. So Tapscott’s invocation of online learning and digital tools as the remedy for lack of student-faculty interaction seems somewhat misguided, or perhaps just not clearly explained. I’m still not seeing how large class sizes can be maintained, “[using] technology to free up professors from transmitting information to curating customized learning experiences.”
Are there faculty who are weak at teaching? By all means, yes, and we should work to improve the standard of teaching overall. But simple generalizations in the name of putting forth a specific vision of “change” shouldn’t be mistaken for a pedagogical analysis. If the relationship between teaching and research is considered “unproven”, why are we not looking at it more closely? The same goes for the lecture and for e-learning. If there’s systematic research being done on how these things work or don’t work, then it should be cited as part of these arguments; if the work doesn’t exist, then we should start addressing that lack rather than jumping to the preferred answer. And if the work isn’t being rewarded in the research-driven academic economy, we should address that, too.
Critiques of education (and other forms of policy) often contain assumed solutions embedded in them. But there are also other possible solutions. If class size isn’t necessarily a determinant of “outcomes”, then why are we still talking constantly about one model–online education or in some cases blended learning–when we could be discussing reducing class sizes, and providing more pedagogical resources and training for graduate students and faculty? What exactly do we know about how online components work (or not)? Do we even have a way of “measuring” student learning to show what works? The context of all this is not a neutral one, it’s not just “let’s improve learning by finding out what will help the most”. The loss of resources including government funding has created serious material pressures. The urgency of the rhetoric about “change” should also remind us that there will be winners and losers in the education game, and futurologists have stakes in predicting something that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy—because prediction inspires present action.