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Academic freedom is caught in a triangle of threats

A dissection of three talks presented at the recent Harry Crowe conference in Toronto.

By SHANNON DEA | MAR 22 2019

Last month, I attended the Harry Crowe conference, the marquee annual event for the Harry Crowe Foundation – the Canadian Association of University Teachers-affiliated foundation devoted to defending academic freedom at Canada’s universities and colleges. The conference brings together the who’s who of academic freedom scholars and activists from veterans like Hank Reichman and Jim Turk to young guns like Jeffrey Sachs and Ira Wells.

The conference is made up of two days of talks and panels, all of remarkably high quality, by folks who really understand the contours of academic freedom. This year’s theme was one that has been on everyone’s mind lately – “Free Speech on Campus.”

The main conclusion I came to after hearing several of the talks is that academic freedom is caught in a triangle of threats. The prospects for escaping that triangle look increasingly remote. I’ll have more to say in future dispatches about what I took away from the more general free speech talks. But this month I want to focus on the picture that emerged from three presentations that were less squarely focused on free speech. Let’s talk about each of them in turn.

The rise of EdTech

In her “‘Loser Teachers’, Teacher Bots, and Other Threats to Free Speech,” Western University media scholar Alison Hearn argued that a “ginned up” free speech crisis is distracting us from the threats to academic freedom posed by “various proprietary forms of educational technology, datafication and predictive data analytics.” Dr. Hearn follows Princeton University professor emerita Joan Scott in urging that those who care about academic freedom should focus their attention on “the material conditions of universities themselves, their governance structures, labour models, and pedagogies, and to the ways these structural components impact the very nature and definition of scholarship, education, academic freedom, free speech and the public good.” Dr. Hearn argues that as we all focus our attention on free speech debates, developments in educational technology (EdTech) have, mostly unnoticed, been restructuring universities.

While EdTech is sometimes understood to name both the pedagogical approach of incorporating educational technology and the particular technologies themselves – platforms like Moodle and Turnitin – Dr. Hearn primarily has the latter in mind. She argues that the move in recent years toward a model of data extraction and learning analytics, and universities’ increasing reliance on EdTech, have had the following effects: EdTech aimed at producing a personalized experience for students undercuts the values of core curricula and education as a collective experience.

Correspondingly, education is reduced to content and professors to content deliverers, and students have less opportunity to stretch beyond their own perspectives and acquire awareness of others’ differences. Student data is mined for profit by private industry and various incentives and constraints put pressure on educators to adopt EdTech for the purpose of generating this profit. The schools themselves don’t profit, but the false economy of whiz-bang automated efficiency makes EdTech difficult for most schools to resist.

Turnitin is a great example of this. Many professors have been forced to adopt this popular plagiarism detection technology because swelling class sizes and the increasing reliance on overworked precarious instructors make slower, low-tech methods of plagiarism prevention unfeasible. Thus, the increasingly cash-strapped postsecondary sector is forced to embrace deskilling, outsourcing and privatization that will, together, lead to further reliance on EdTech.

Thus, Dr. Hearn predicts that postsecondary educators will “increasingly be asked to prefigure course content in advance to make it more amenable to datafication and coding.” She concludes by warning that “the current free speech debates provide a familiar distraction from what is, in fact, an unprecedented assault on university autonomy by educational technologies and their proprietary, black-boxed forms of data extraction.”

Academic freedom in library and archive holdings and collections

Digital technology also figured large in Francesca Holyoke’s talk. Ms. Holyoke is the head of the University of New Brunswick libraries’ archives and special collections department, and her remarks focused on free speech and academic freedom in library and archive holdings and collections.

In particular, Ms. Holyoke traced the sector’s move away from physical holdings and collections to a for-profit online model in which university libraries pay for licenses to content that is held off-campus and dispensed in single servings. Ms. Holyoke follows Michael Gorman, who in 1995 numbered among the enemies of libraries “technovandals” who privilege uncurated information over the culture of learning and stewardship. Since Mr. Gorman’s warning, university libraries have increasingly shifted from buying books to paying for licenses from the “big five” publishers, who bundle the licenses together like TV cable packages. Thus, a university cannot subscribe to Cell without also subscribing to a battery of lower quality journals that have no connection to the teaching and research that happens at that university.

Further, as with cable channels, in the new electronic subscription universe libraries often pay multiple times for the very same article available in different license clusters. Try this experiment: visit your university library website and look up a particular article. Notice how many different ways you can access it. I just looked up one of my older, fairly “niche” articles. At my library, you can access it online via JSTOR, Gale Cengage, and Project Muse. A more mainstream article in a more mainstream subdiscipline would probably be accessible by six rather than just three license bundles.

A couple of things about this: first, when the license runs out, if the library doesn’t pay to renew, it loses access to the licensed material. Contrast this with the old model on which libraries purchased physical books and journals and they became permanent parts of the collection. Second, every license bundle costs. An article like mine that’s accessible via three bundles is in a sense costing the university library three times.

Ms. Holyoke is clear that she is not opposed to digitization in itself. She observes that the digitization of library collections can make those collections more accessible to students at remote locations or to disabled students who benefit from some of the accessibility features digitization makes possible. Further, she acknowledges that when scholarly associations and university presses digitize their publications and sell them as bundles, the profit generated can contribute in significant ways to their support of scholarship.

However, the bulk of the licenses are purchased from five big for-profit publishers, who do not reinvest them in scholarship (Ms. Holyoke reports that Elsevier earned £913 million, or roughly $1.6 billion CDN, in 2018), particularly in cutting edge scholarship or scholarship by underrepresented scholars. Indeed, Ms. Holyoke notes that the algorithms publishers use produce increased representation among licensed products of works that are already widely available and heavily cited – thereby reproducing existing inequities, and indeed widening the gap between the most mainstream research and the most marginalized.

The effect on precarious faculty

The third talk I want to focus on this month was given by Concordia English professor Paul Barrett, titled “The Real World of Academic Speech.” Dr. Barrett’s title is a cheeky reference to conservative criticisms in the media that rely on juxtaposing universities with the “real world.” In fact, Dr. Barrett argues, the real world of Canadian universities is one that is increasingly dominated by precarious scholars who have no real academic freedom protections, and who teach and research under terrible working conditions.

Dr. Barrett recounts the experience of faculty on temporary contracts who benefit financially from strikes because their strike pay is higher than what they earn for teaching. He asks, “How do we understand academic speech for the increasing number of scholars who have little to no institutional support, whose employment depends upon approval from administrators, and is up for renewal on a yearly basis? …this, to my mind, is the real threat to academic speech.”

Dr. Barrett points to the frequency with which precarious faculty are hired on temporary contracts as emergency replacements – except that every semester has the same emergencies, since what is cast as an emergency is in fact the new status quo. Dr. Barrett cites a range of data that highlights Canadian universities’ increasing dependence on contract faculty. Across the universities Dr. Barrett highlights, the first decade of this century saw increases in tenure-stream faculty that ranged from 7 percent to 18 percent while increases to contract faculty at the same universities were in the 93 percent to 203 percent range. He cites Joe Berry’s observation that the professoriate is one of the few occupations that has been converted from primarily full-time permanent workers to part-time, temporary workers in a single generation.

Triangulating between the three talks produces a dispiriting picture. The shift to EdTech is turning students into consumers and unpaid sources of profitable data, and putting pressure on professors to adapt their pedagogy accordingly. The shift in libraries from purchasing to licensing is gutting book purchasing budgets while cash-strapped universities pay multiple times for temporary access to the same cluster of (often unneeded) texts. And the “precarification” of the professoriate is leaving universities with a minority of scholars who have genuine academic freedom protections.

Meanwhile, the stories that make the headlines centre on a small handful of controversial figures and the wrangling over their speech rights. While we are distracted by media mythologizing of snowflake students and politically correct professors, Dr. Hearn, Ms. Holyoke, and Dr. Barrett warn that universities are becoming very different places, places in which academic freedom is very much in peril.

Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is an associate professor of philosophy and vice-president of the faculty association at the University of Waterloo.
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