Many of those of us kicking around the academic Twitterverse over the past few days have been witnessing (and participating in) an intense discussion that’s raised issues at the core of academic values and assumptions about knowledge and research. This discussion has been focused on the “ethics of live tweeting” as a practice at academic conferences, and the ways in which presenters and academics either support this practice or reject it. We can see that this topic has touched a sore spot from the extreme reactions it’s generated in some Twitter circles. A number of people have also written thoughtful blog posts addressing the issues in more detail, and I’ve linked to those throughout my own contribution here.
To begin, I have to say I agree with those who’ve argued that we need to respect other people’s boundaries and try to understand where strong reactions come from; there are reasons why people react the way they do. But those reasons aren’t necessarily personal (even when the reaction makes it sound like they are). So I want to take a look specifically at the accusation that academics “use” other people’s work in social media venues like blogs and Twitter to build their own reputation and academic “brand”, and ultimately to benefit their own academic careers (ostensibly at the expense of others). Tressie McMillan Cottom brought my attention to this critique in her post from September 30, and it’s more fully articulated here.
One of the key problems brought up in the online debate has been that of determining what knowledge is public and what’s private, and who gets to decide how dissemination of that knowledge happens (where, and when, and who the audience will be), who has the “right” to share ideas.
In my opinion, control is one of the fundamental elements of this discussion; this is something discussed critically by Roopika Risam, who points out the connection between access and control. Control is also exercised through authority, which is closely tied to expertise and peer recognition. So we see some scholars re-asserting a form of academic credibility by putting down other scholars as mere opportunists, not “real” academics. In this way the boundary between “academic” and “anything else” is re-drawn by those who are already inside it–or those who hope to be allowed in.
Why would academics, even those using Twitter themselves, cast such unpleasant aspersions upon their colleagues? To understand this, we need to consider that regular forms of academic promotionalism, such as book launches, listserv announcements, and of course conference presentations and guest lectures, simply aren’t seen as such; they’re perceived as ways of “sharing ideas” with colleagues; mentoring; and building professional networks.
However, academics using social media make similar claims; many argue that “opening up” scholarship to commentary, through public tweeting, brings attention both to the scholar doing the presenting and to the person sharing (tweeting) what is being said. Many of us also view Twitter as a tool, for note-taking or simply for the dissemination of scholarly insights to a broader audience, given that many people simply can’t attend academic conferences. We strive to properly “cite” our sources because we’re still academics and researchers, even online; because we respect our peers and colleagues; and also because it’s part of an ethic of sharing as something that actually increases the value of the research.
Some academics have also argued that they fear their ideas will be “scooped” or stolen by others. This is of course a reasonable point since real plagiarism happens online–as do myriad versions of misattribution, as in this article where a tweet from Roopika Risan was re-quoted, as an incorrect attribution, from a different Tweeter (it’s now been corrected).
But plagiarism happens in more traditional forms of academic writing, too. Anyone in the room at an academic conference could be “stealing” your ideas. Whether that person uses a notebook and pen or a notebook computer, theft happens and it hurts people, and that’s a risk we take when we present work at an academic event or elsewhere. I think this is a problem that’s been around for much longer than the short period in which we’ve had access to mobile devices and social media platforms (though of course, these technologies dramatically increase the possibilities). The problem is the motivation for the practice of theft, not the technologies that enable it.
The argument that those who tweet posts about others’ work are “selfish” and concerned only with academic branding is a rebuke in the harsh terms of promotionalism, which is highly disdained in academic culture (partly for reasons I’ve discussed in the past). But let’s not forget the flip side of this extreme argument, which is that true meritocracy should be free from crass self-promotion. Not only is the argument an inflammatory one, it also plays into a false binary. Making such an argument through social media channels merely adds the element of irony to that mix.
There’s another ironic point here, too. Accusing others of selfishness in this way reinforces an objectifying and proprietary concept of knowledge in which ownership trumps the added value of openness. And this is a neo-liberal concept of knowledge, one in which knowledge is constrained by its use-value within an (academic) economy, and bounded by the assumption that we can exchange it for various forms of capital. The increased competition and professionalization in higher education has only exacerbated this conflict between the need and desire to share ideas, and the imperative to claim them as protected “territory”.
The accusations of self-interested careerism also signal a shift in academic practice and culture, including the possibility of changing how we develop authority and prestige–vital currency in the academic economy. How is “academic capital” created? Will this change with the use of relatively open new media to disseminate knowledge? That’s a “disruption” similar to what has been predicted in the debate about online education, for example. It could be another facet of the effects of new communication technologies on the ways in which academic culture and work are changing. At the moment, social media activity from academics does not generate nearly as much academic credibility as publishing and presenting at conferences. This could change.
How can we deal with these issues in the academic context? Clearly, we can’t assume that everyone agrees on (social media) etiquette. The general level of awareness needs to be raised if problems are to be avoided. Conference organizers could include social media guidelines; presenters could ask politely that people refrain from Tweeting; attendees could check to make sure it’s OK before they share online. I don’t think there’s one practical answer that’s going to make everyone happy (other than this one), because context is crucial and also because of the very contentious underlying issues involved (Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Ernesto Priego, and Bethany Nowviskie have good suggestions). But as E. E. Templeton commented, we can at least make sure everyone’s “on the same page”–and that this discussion is happening at all.
Today, it’s my “blogoversary”–that’s right, it’s (only!) two years since I started writing this blog regularly in August, 2010. I started the blog as a way to comment on the increasing amount of higher ed news I was reading; back then it was hosted at Blogger, and in August 2011 it “moved” to its current home at University Affairs.
Over the weekend I decided to go through the analytics for both versions of my blog, and take a look at the more popular posts. I thought I’d do a bit of a re-cap in the form of a list of themes that have come up over time; some of these posts were the more popular ones, and others were my own favourites from the past two years.
1–“Know your value”. This post addresses the ways in which “free work” functions in the academic economy. Specifically using academic conferences as a starting point, I wanted to show how pre-existing (class and cultural) privilege enables the continued professionalization required in academe, allowing those with “supports” to climb the ladder more easily because they can give their time and energy without demanding recompense (other than in academic capital). Published on July 19, 2011, this was the most viewed post from the blog in its previous incarnation at Blogger.
2–“Shameful self-promotion vs. meritocracy” and the “Myth of academic meritocracy”. All the posts I’ve written about academic ideals of meritocracy, and the realities of privilege and exclusion, have attracted a good number of readers. I think this is because the contradictions between those two things highlight problems with a fundamental “norm” of academe that’s still largely assumed/unquestioned, and which many experience as negatively affecting their everyday life (and ongoing success) in the university.
3–“Universities and the media” (parts one and two), and “Start talking back”. I’m very interested in the relationship between media discourses and policy-making, so the media coverage of university education is something I pay attention to and tend to write about on a semi-regular basis. In these posts I’ve argued that universities must pay more attention to how ideas about higher education are circulated and used in public discussions, since this has effects on the perception (and politics) of education.
4–“Future tense” and “Cracking the code for unemployment” were both written to explore some of the ways in which both university pedagogy and our assumptions about what students “need” may not take into account undergraduates’ ideas about the future, and about what education will provide them. What implications are there for the emphasis on economics that’s now taken for granted not only by governments and many university administrations, but also by students and parents?
5–“My grief lies all within” (and its follow-up). These posts on PhD and depression have had more attention than anything else I’ve written for this blog in the past year. I wrote the initial post without expecting much of a reaction, for some reason–it felt more like a personal reflection on something I believed was systemic, but hadn’t seen research showing it. However, the overwhelming response from readers definitely affected my opinion about that. I’m convinced that for a lot of different reasons, mental health is a serious and pervasive issue in post-secondary education and during the PhD, when students are absorbing academic mores and values including the division of personal from professional lives as a show of one’s “seriousness” as a candidate, this is especially difficult.
6– “Bursting a bubble: privilege and access to the academic life” is about why and how graduate education is easier for some people than for others. Another of the posts relating to meritocracy, here I decided to respond directly to a PhD student who argued, in a Guardian piece, that everyone should be enjoying the “life of the mind” as much as she is. Closely related to the posts on depression and the PhD, this one highlights the ways in which those who are “doing fine”, i.e. enjoying a version of the academic ideal, and who may be in a position to ignore and downplay the concerns and experiences of others.
7–“Policy based evidence” and “Do you have a stat for that?“ are posts in which I looked at the lack of evidence with which we can understand and assess educational institutions and systems, and policy initiatives. This is a problem in Canada specifically, but it’s also possible it’s happening elsewhere; by sharing the details I wanted to highlight how the government’s lack of interest in statistical evidence makes it hard to even begin to understand trends in education (and other policy areas). For a government so keen on developing and maintaining a stock of “human capital”, this lapse seems to show an effect of taking an ideological position rather than a reasoned one.
8–“How the network works” and “More than a storm in a teacup” are both about the use of new media for academic work and as tools for professionalization and career-building; they address Twitter and blogging, respectively. I’ve used these tools for a couple of years now and they’ve helped me with breaking down some professional barriers (and with meeting a lot of great people), and now and then I try to address some aspects of use of technology, since a lot of people seem to find this helpful. However I’m still very critical of the ways in which technology is being taken up in sweeping rhetorics of “disruption” and institutional change, and I think we need to focus on what seems to work on a small scale before we start assuming a techno-panacea for our educational–and by extension, economic and social–ills.
9–“Social mobility, neo-liberal austerity, and the university” and “The aims of education”. I wrote these two posts because I think it’s important that we keep asking what is expected of the university (and education in general), and whether this is realistic and appropriate; when do certain kinds of critiques reflect destructive political agendas? And we need to keep thinking about what we mean when we say “education”–what we’re taking for granted.
10–“Contemplation of innovation” and “Invention vs. innovation”. Because both the concept of knowledge and the process of “discovery” are central to education and to the university, I became interested in how these things are framed in policy and media debates. I find the ongoing discussion of “innovation” in Canada to be a fascinating and revealing one. Canada is perceived by many as having an “innovation deficit”, and this has been raised repeatedly as a policy problem. The trope of “innovation as governance solution” is a larger idea that is being applied at different levels in various contexts, including, for example, in the recent policy report produced by Ontario’s government.
Thanks for reading–and I hope you come back for more!
For those who follow the higher education news, the week of July 16th to 22nd will stand out as one in which the term “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Courses, for the uninitiated) hit a high point as the “higher-ed buzzword of the year”. Unwitting readers have been swept up by a tidal wave of MOOC rhetoric, finding themselves clobbered with dubious metaphors of uncontrollable, inevitable force; they have seen the rhetorical dial turned up to 11, moving beyond the level of “game-changer” and “disruption” and into the realm of the “revolutionary” and even the seismological.
One of the reasons I haven’t written about online education and the storm of MOOC commentary is that so many others have already provided excellent critical analyses, including Bonnie Stewart (who’s written multiple MOOC posts and who helpfully coined the term “MOOCopalypse”), Lee Skallerup Bessette, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Johann Neem. Thus my own modest contribution is more of a compendium of themes and articles for your reference, along with a few of my own small, nebulous cogitations on all this hubbub. Because of my lack of experience with MOOCs, I’ve been focused mostly on what is being said about them–and in what context–rather than whether I think it’s credible (though you may notice a hint of skepticism).
There are a number of discursive themes at work in the commentary about online postsecondary education (PSE) and, most recently, about MOOCs in particular, and the first and most obvious would be the strong thread of technological determinism, often in the form of rhapsodic talk about online education (for example that provided by Bill Gates and friends on a regular basis).
One of the main riffs in this old song is the prediction of immanent “disruption“, accompanied by the assertion that universities “must” change or they will be left in the dust; Harvard’s Clayton M. Christensen is one of the central figures in this “disruptive innovation” movement. Of course, technological utopianism is nothing new–and historical context should be one means of grounding our understanding of these latest trends. For example, the significance of the Internet is often couched in a comparison to the printing press from the 15th century–but this is a flawed comparison if we consider the origins of the Internet, its political economy, and the nature of its infrastructure.
Technological disruption and change are given more urgency when we see various economic arguments invoked, including (especially) the creation of coveted economies of scale for educational institutions that are also grappling with the rising costs of competing in a higher-ed market. At a time when government support for higher education is generally stagnant or insufficient to cover increasing enrolments, students and families are also feeling the pressure of increased costs in PSE as tuition balloons, debt levels rise, and post-graduation jobs remain elusive. It’s in this context that we find entrepreneur Peter Thiel–who has two degrees from Stanford–telling entrepreneurial youngsters that they’re better off dropping out and getting an education on their own (and going so far as to put his money where his mouth is).
“Disruption” is portrayed as a means of breaking up the monopoly of the university (through technology). Over 60 years ago, Canadian scholar Harold Innis wrote about monopolies of knowledge and the roles of new (communication) technologies in “disrupting” them. This analysis hasn’t been mentioned in a single article I’ve read about universities and new technology, and yet Innis’s points seem more vital today than many of the hackneyed arguments we’ve seen recently. The university’s core position in a knowledge monopoly still based on print technology is being destabilized from multiple sides over a long period; we can see this not only with online education but also with the “open access” debate around academic publishing, the latter being a core generator of transferable prestige and influence.
Another key part of the radical overhaul (or destruction) of the university is to be the literal dis-placement of education, not only or even solely for accessibility but also for purposes of convenience and commodification. Since the close relationship between privilege and physical “place” must be “disrupted”, the sense of the Internet as both a bridge across spaces and a space unto itself is an unspoken assumption in these arguments. The desire to “free” the university from its constraints in place and time is also a desire to duplicate the process that has happened with information, and the “information/knowledge” conflation seems to run parallel to the “content delivery/education” one. Johann Neem links the assumedly dis-placing nature of online education to an “individualist fallacy” that is being reinscribed in much of the rhetoric about MOOCs, even as the initial idea from which the “MOOC” term sprang was a connectivist one.
The conflation of information and knowledge is reflected in the metaphor of “delivery” appears frequently in articles about online education, for example when Jeb Bush and Jim Hunt argue that “how [universities] deliver quality education to the millions of students who depend on them will determine whether our country will continue to be a global economic leader”. Education, unlike a piece of furniture or the daily mail, cannot be “delivered” in this sense. Yet we hear this language on a daily basis in the higher education news.
It seems to me that an implicit form of standardization would be another outcome of the information/knowledge conflation. In an ironic merger of meritocratic ideals from both market-based and academic logics, we now see the argument that just a few–or rather “the best”–professors might be able to produce “content” that could be consumed by ever-larger online audiences for free. But in what way would this change the current dynamic in the higher ed landscape, wherein the prestige of certain types of institutions already dominate? These universities are now seeking to build on and expand their “brands” through online education initiatives, furthering their already substantial reach with technological tools. At the root of any acceptance of this strategy is an assumption that the current elite universities (and professors) are elite because they are simply the most excellent–not because of global historical, political-economic contexts that may have enabled them to be so.
If “knowledge” can be delivered with efficiency by technology and a few superstar professors, then it’s also rational to obviate the existence of most faculty through showing that learning can occur without their help–or at least to demonstrate that their presence is optional and to minimize/standardize their role through out sourcing of teaching (which could be seen as a logical extension of the current fragmentation of academic work). The argument here is that universities’ productivity hasn’t increased because of the burden of cost presented by these superfluous faculty, with their inconvenient demand for professional salaries and full-time, long-term employment.
Clearly a central theme in the most extreme commentary about online education is the apparent failure of the university itself, soon to be made final through the triumph of technological “openness” over the “closed”, elite academic world (although ironically quite a bit of the hype is now being generated by the above-mentioned elite universities). Indeed the goal is not just to change or “disrupt” higher education but to find the ammunition to shoot it to death. Universities, one could extrapolate, are useless for preparing students for the “real world”, and what they do provide comes at too high a price. In response to our turbulent times, the university is usually seen to be changing too slowly, or not at all. The example of lecture format is often used as an example of this lack of “innovation”, even though oft-cited video lectures are simply a recorded form of the same methods. Online education (often narrowly conceived) has to be shown to be “better”, more effective, more flexible.
The logic that is being used to justify the development and adoption of online education is part of the context of neoliberal politics and policy. Signs of this context include the emphasis on cost reduction; demands for efficiency and productivity including more “flexibility” from workers (faculty) and better “delivery” of the educational goods; the eager expectation of unlimited markets in educational products and services; and the commodification of knowledge. The strong emphasis on economic concerns shows that as usual, the grammar of inevitable change is being mobilized for particular purposes; as Bonnie Stewart points out, “We need to begin talking about the interests that determine the specific shape of particular MOOCs as they emerge” rather than assuming that the concept is neutral and means the same thing to everyone.
Why does all this matter? While it may seem like a lot of bluster, the potential effect on governance (probably more as catalyst than cause) is already evident. We have real-life examples of the push for a narrow vision of competitive change, including of course the much-cited case of the University of Virginia in the U.S. The disruption discourse has drifted northward to Canada where it is starting to be invoked not only in media coverage but also in the production of real policy goals and “visions” for change to Canada’s PSE systems.
We can, in fact I think we must, resist this rhetoric and its conveniently simplified overtures. As Cathy Davidson argues, it’s possible to be “infuriated by the erosion of the taxpayer support for higher education, its commercialization, and the profiteering, and still embrace the most inventive aspects of the most creative and humanitarian MOOCs”. Clearly in the context I’ve described, there are reasons why the MOOC idea is catching fire. We need to make sure we–and our policy-makers and politicians–keep those reasons in mind when assessing the potential effects of decisions about education and technology.
Greetings, and welcome to my little corner of the University Affairs web site. As the new blog on the block, I thought I might provide a short introduction of myself and the kinds of topics I’ll be addressing in future posts.
At the moment I’m writing from the perspective of a graduate student. I spend most of my time working on the research and writing stage of a PhD from the faculty of education at York University. My academic background is in a few different areas – prior to the PhD I earned a BA in communication studies from McMaster University and then an MA in linguistics from York. Immediately after high school I also spent two years working on a BFA in visual art. I’ve lived in Canada for about half my life, and before that I lived in the Manawatu region of New Zealand.
The topic of my dissertation is Canadian postsecondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities. I look at the changes universities try to make (to themselves) in order to “succeed” in contemporary political, economic, and social contexts. I became interested in this topic through the experiences I had as an undergraduate, which made me question what was going on with universities and why certain changes might be happening in Canada and elsewhere.
Some of you may have seen the previous version of this blog at a different web address. I originally started Speculative Diction a year ago, and in that time it’s developed into an outlet where I can write about postsecondary education topics in a way that brings together my interests – in communication and knowledge, pedagogy, governance, politics and history, among other things. Over the past year I’ve written about graduate education, teaching undergraduate students, socioeconomic class and faculty careers, technology in the classroom, national postsecondary policies in various countries, and the relationship between universities and the media.
The inspiration for content in Speculative Diction comes from a variety of sources, including the national and international higher education news; academic papers and books; reports from governments, think-tanks and other organizations; conversations with students and academics; and personal experiences I’ve had in the postsecondary environment as a student and as a teaching assistant.
I hope you’ll stick with me and come back to read further posts, and that you’ll consider contributing to the larger discussion by leaving comments as well. Looking forward to it!