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.
In time for the start of the new semester, I have a bit of a tech update, in which I’ll be discussing two online tools that might be of interest to researchers and students.
The first site I want to mention is Buzzdata, a data-sharing site that first came to my attention when Dr. James Colliander (@colliand) invited me to view NSERC data that he and others had already been posting at their “hive”, nserc.buzzdata.com. Each “hive” is like a separate space that can be shared by multiple users, and the hives contains various themed “datarooms”. For example, one of the datarooms in the NSERC hive is dedicated to NSERC postdoctoral fellowship application rates and outcomes; another focuses on NSERC’s Research Tools and Instruments (RTI) program consultation.
When I saw how the site was being used to highlight the trends in NSERC research funding, I suggested we start adding SSHRC data as well. I asked Dr. Ian Milligan (@ianmilligan1) if he could take a look at the numbers, since my facility with statistics and graphs is very limited. He kindly did so, and blogged about some early results here.
From my point of view, the site’s only significant problem right now is that you have to make a different profile to view each hive, rather than being able to create one profile and view different hives from it. However, the site developers have assured us they’re working on this, so I expect it will be resolved in good time. While Buzzdata is still very much in development, it was great to learn that the site developers are taking suggestions directly and providing help in realtime through the site (which has a chat feature for this purpose), and through emails and Twitter. The data that have already been uploaded show how much promise there is in a kind of crowd-sourced compilation of statistics about education and research funding. This is also a great way to organise for political effect; among the participants in the group is Kennedy Stewart, Official Opposition Critic for Science and Technology.
The other site that’s been drawing my attention lately is Academia.edu. I saw a blog post about the new analytics they’ve made available, and because I’ve gradually been using the site more over the past 12 to 18 months, I decided to check out the changes. When I looked at the blog post and then the site, I realised they were starting to make significant changes that could be quite useful to academic users. So I shared the link through my Twitter account, recommending that others take a look.
Academia.edu, a social networking site specifically for academics, researchers, and students, has already been providing some interesting and unique statistics to its users. These include a kind of tracking system in which the site shows you a list of recent profile views including Google searches in which your profile has come up as a result, and also shows where the views came from (geographic location). Each view shows up with an ID number so that you can tell whether pageviews are “unique” or not; this is a small but important detail. The site can also send an email notification each time your profile comes up in a Google search.
Like LinkedIn, Academia.edu has a spot where you can upload your CV. It also has a section where you can list academic talks and presentations and add slides or a link to Prezi, and a similar section for sharing academic papers (which can be tagged with keywords). While I’d been thinking about posting some older papers online, what convinced me to put them up on Academia.edu was a new feature that tracks “views” of one’s papers, including which other site users have viewed them.
After my tweet, I was surprised to receive an email from the site’s community manager, Helen Sparrow, who asked if I’d be interested in providing feedback on how I used Academia.edu. We had a phone conversation in which we discussed various aspects of site use including whose research I “follow” and why, and what features might be useful for users. One of the things I recommended was to increase available Twitter link-ups to Academia.edu, including the capacity to search users by Twitter handle (there’s already a “share on Twitter” button added to the analytics pages).
They’re working towards adding a commenting feature for the academic articles, which is intended to facilitate discussion and feedback in a way that the current peer review (for publication) process doesn’t tend to allow. Of course, there are risks with that, too–one can only begin to imagine the grief that could be cause by academic trolls!–but it’s interesting to see a potential tool for constructing a kind of networked online academic profile, where you could re-work and re-post papers after feedback, then track the number and location of views. At a time when many scholars are becoming frustrated with the restrictions of traditional academic publishing, and while universities are demanding “evidence” of academic performance, this could be an experiment worth trying out.
In fact both Academia.edu and Buzzdata are providing means of connection that could facilitate academic collaboration in research and in other aspects of professional life. While much of the debate about “disruption” is focused on technologies that fragment the university, we’re also seeing tools that reflect the potential for coming together (again) in new ways.
Unless you’ve been offline and away from your computer for the past week, you have probably seen or read something about the many Internet site “blackouts” in protest of the U.S. bills SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act), with high profile demonstrations and shutdowns from Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, BoingBoing and others.
Watch a video explaining the implications of SOPA and PIPA.
In the course of my various degrees I’ve never had a class on intellectual property (IP) issues, and though I find it difficult at times to keep up with the details of the policies, I think it’s important that we all learn something about these issues given their increasing relevance to education.
As academic librarians stepped up via Twitter to help out those panicked undergrads who couldn’t function without a Wikipedia page to steer them in the right direction, I wondered in what ways my own research process is (or is not) entangled with the political, legal and technical issues raised by SOPA/PIPA. Revising, adding to, and sharing research materials is an ongoing process, one that I couldn’t have developed even 10 years ago because the tools — many of them online — simply weren’t available. At the same time, the information “field” is now so huge that it’s hard to know where and how to begin our searches, and the search is in no way restricted to library databases or to academically sanctioned channels of information seeking (Google Scholar is generally my first stop these days). What exactly is “content” now and how do we find it?
For example one problem is that SOPA/PIPA could affect content on social media sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, as discussed in this TED talk by Clay Shirky. Shirky discusses how we not only discover, but also share and create content using the Internet. This is an important point — as students, teachers and researchers, we’re now using the Internet for much more than just straightforward searches for academic content. As well as the more popular sites, specialty tools such as Mendeley, Diigo, Academia.edu and more are examples of how social networking and online information sharing have started to change what educators do and how we connect with others.
Though the example isn’t a parallel, Canada’s PSE institutions have already had copyright problems related to the increasing digitization of research and teaching materials. Many of us experienced first-hand the effects of changes to Access Copyright when a number of universities decided not to use the service anymore, after the tariff per student was to be more than doubled. This past September was, as I recall, more hectic than usual as we waited for course readings to be approved, assembled and copied so students could purchase and read them for class.
As others have pointed out, it was also during the past week that Apple unveiled its new online textbook project. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it sounds like Apple wants to link the use of its textbook apps directly to expansion of the market for iPads by creating a new technological territory and governing it solo. At worst, this buys in to the notion of technology as academic panacea while also cynically making the play to generate the technology on which education will come to rely. In other words, it’s a tidy business move; but will it work — and what will be the implications for knowledge and for already-stratified education systems, if it does? It may be nice to see education “front and centre” but not, in my opinion, when the goal is to create a closed economy.
While SOPA/PIPA has been postponed indefinitely, the issues it raises will not disappear. Even as we find ourselves with a new freedom to find research materials and share these with others, our new relationships and sources of information are dependent on systems that are beyond many people’s reach and understanding. Even if we learn how to code, to make our own apps, are we not still using infrastructure that is controlled elsewhere and could be policed or shut down without our consent? We need to pay attention to the changing information infrastructure (its physical, legal, and political economic aspects), since the changes made today can and will affect our capacities as researchers and teachers in the future.