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SPECULATIVE DICTION

Critiques of higher ed – beyond animosity and anecdote

By MELONIE FULLICK | MAR 29 2016

Some of you may recall that there was a piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books last December that was a strong contender for “Worst Higher Ed Article of 2015.” Written by University of Prince Edward Island professor Ron Srigley, it was in some ways the epitome of a recognizable type: what you might call the Old Man Yells at Cloud school of analysis, closely related to the Get Off My Lawn genre that I discussed in a post last year. This torrent of prose (over 8,500 words of it) received a good deal of attention on social media at the time—in spite of, or perhaps because of, the author’s vicious snarkiness about the apparent failures of Canadian universities.

Unfortunately, Srigley was given further opportunity to vent his spleen when the CBC decided to have him speak on The Sunday Edition. More recently The Walrus reprinted an edited version of the LARB article, gathering a few more clicks from the controversy it generated as it recirculated through social networks. But that’s part of the problem I want to discuss here, and the reason I’m going back to this article: the voices amplified, on this topic and others, are too often those that provide provocation without substance.

So there are three things I’ll address in this post: the content of Srigley’s article, its tone and  the media attention it received.

Let’s start with the content. Srigley’s article is framed as a warning to parents about the decline of the universities their children will attend—a clarion call to some sort of action that isn’t specified. It’s presented as a series of revelatory criticisms of the institution and those who work in it. Among other things, we hear that universities do not provide “real” education anymore; faculty members are too concerned with coddling students and making them feel good, rather than teaching them anything worth knowing. Teaching these days is all about protecting students’ feelings and inflating their grades, while “dumbing down” the learning process with new pedagogical techniques and technological gimmickry. Students, in turn, are “too sensitive” and prefer “comfort over truth,” while they refuse to do the required work or view education as anything other than a means to a job.

These complaints are of course nothing new. Many of them are reminiscent of conservative laments for the (elite) university of the 1950s and earlier. Part of what’s striking is the narrowness of the whole thing; in spite of his high-handed prose, Srigley demonstrates a lack of perspective or indeed any connection to the ongoing discussion about, or areas of scholarship and research that already critically address, developments in the university and in higher education—over three decades’ worth of books, peer-reviewed articles and reports from many different fields, as well as myriad news articles, columns, essays, opinion pieces and blog posts that have presented accounts of change from diverse political viewpoints. Perhaps alongside Orwell’s 1984, Srigley should try reading The Big U by Neal Stephenson; actually published in 1984, it’s already parodying something that Srigley seems to think is a revelation today when he’s telling his audience that “it’s not as bad where you are.”

As for the idea that readers in the United States would be surprised by any of this, let alone that Canadian universities would serve as a “warning” to them—it’s ridiculous. In the progress of such trends, Canada is behind other countries, including not only the U.S. but also (for example) Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. Srigley seems unaware that there are academics all over the world, and elsewhere in Canada, who have long been working to resist and respond to troubling changes in their specific institutional contexts. They’ve done this through analyzing, collaborating and sharing experiences; and they’ve done it without exhorting parents to do the work for them.

Srigley positions himself as somehow sidestepping a barrier in the form of blissfully ignorant colleagues who Just Don’t Understand, and as a martyr willing to sacrifice himself on the altar of Truth where others dare not go; yet plenty of others have already been there. To treat this piece as informed commentary is to devalue the work of all those (and there have been many!) who’ve already made much more committed and nuanced attempts to take apart the issues under discussion, and to anyone who has cared enough to build their analysis on research rather than anecdote and animosity.

Speaking of animosity, it’s impossible to ignore the tone with which Srigley makes his points. If he presented himself to colleagues in the same spirit that pervades this article, then I’m not surprised he was ignored—the entire essay reeks of entitlement and an assumed superiority to context. Considering that he seems to view collegial behaviour as an impingement on academic freedom, this is hardly a surprise; I can’t help wondering what “the odd ill-mannered excess” looks like in practice. Yet while Srigley finds it problematic that others have a need for “comfort” in the university, he’s ready to defend the conditions of his own comfort, including any perceived impingement on his self-expression.

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Then there’s the anger. Srigley’s in a towering self-righteous rage and no-one escapes his wrath: students are lazy swine with pearls of knowledge cast before them; faculty members are sheep ready to be herded in any direction that keeps them in good stead with the administration and students; the “student services cabal” are “partially-educated” toadies to administration, barriers to faculty autonomy and a pointless drain on the university budget; administrators themselves are portrayed as showing more concern with with the next photo op than with the “real” purpose of the university.

And yet every accusation is oddly oblique. Instead of clear examples, we see mostly veiled anecdotes and sneering references to other faculty at the “third- and fourth-tier Canadian schools” Srigley describes. These faculty, while they may be successful at teaching, clearly aren’t real intellectuals and they’re framed as blithely ignorant of the state of higher education, while the author assumes the attitude of a victimized prophet.

When it comes to how universities work (or don’t work), there’s plenty to be angry about. But Srigley doesn’t really go there; his piece is less a critique than a venting session, an enumeration of personal complaints framed as general travesties. It seems as if his issues with academe are about a need for validation of his own experiences, rather than concern for the quality of education or the undoing of the university. What’s particularly frustrating is that there are a few grains of truth amid the chaff of pomposity; these could have been presented coherently and supported with relevant information. But Srigley’s too busy revelling in the polarizing cynicism that’s entirely unhelpful in uncovering, analyzing and responding to the changes in higher education that have been ongoing for almost four decades now.

Why did I bother responding to this piece at all? Precisely because it’s nothing new, and after a while these kinds of articles start to grate. The assumed credibility of the author also raises perennial questions about who gets to be positioned as an (education) “expert” and why; it shows how we’re still seeing some voices—white and male and “authoritative”—automatically assumed to be worthy of attention. It takes both privilege and presumptuousness to pen a sweeping screed based almost solely on your personal experience, then to be given access to publication in a venue like LARB. Education in particular is subject to this sort of thing all the time (see: Silicon Valley), because everyone has some personal experience with it and something to say about how it should be improved, even though they may dismiss it as a legitimate area of research and scholarship.

I started this blog because I wanted some small way to show there’s more to the issues than what you see in the latest clickbait rant about the woes of higher ed. But it’s also a part of a larger ongoing conversation, not an isolated proclamation of access to the “truth.” I think it’s likely I, too, would be dismissed by Srigley as a “partially educated” critic. But I know there are ways of critiquing the university without relying on elitist tropes and “anecdata,” and without insulting and dismissing everyone involved; there are ways of communicating that don’t shut down the discussion before it begins.

 

ABOUT MELONIE FULLICK
Melonie Fullick

Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.

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  1. Elizabeth / March 30, 2016 at 11:41 am

    The point of Prof. Srigley’s article was obvious – and accurate. Anyone in academia who pays even the slightest bit of attention has probably witnessed examples of everything he addressed, and knows full well that they are not unique. Faculty are in the best position to change the problems of universities, but are often more concerned with defending a privileged right to exist, which this angry diatribe seems to demonstrate. It does exactly what it (wrongly) accuses Prof. Srigley of: it insults, makes sweeping generalizations, and aims to shut down open and honest discussion. If this is an example of academia, parents should be concerned.

  2. Cathryn Heslep / March 30, 2016 at 3:49 pm

    Thank you for this insightful review. In listening to CBC’s Sunday Morning, as a student services professional, I found myself wondering where this vitriol was coming from. I appreciate your commonsense approach to this difficult-to-swallow (and hear) piece.

  3. Jason Pritzer / March 30, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Previous comment hit it on the nail. If you look at Fullick”s piece carefully you see that she distorts much of what Srigley actually says. Her article confirms Srigley”s observation that many academics have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to this issue.

  4. Heidi Karow / March 31, 2016 at 6:26 am

    This piece also wreaks of something. Clever is not going to help at all.

  5. Howard A. Doughty / March 31, 2016 at 6:52 am

    As a “professor” with over 46 years of seniority in what isn’t even a “third-” or “fourth-tier Canadian” university, but a mere Ontario “college” (though one that offers a dozen or more “bachelor’s degrees”), I appreciate Melonie Fullicks’ appeal for civility and respectful discourse. Goodness knows, we don’t get much respect from our administration/management!

    On the other hand, what Fullicks calls Srigley’s “towering self-righteous rage” seems pretty accurate and fully justifyable in principle – though it’s admittedly a tad hyperbolic and over-generalized (as passionate polemics are bound to be).

    So, if not all “students are lazy swine with pearls of knowledge cast before them,” only some faculty members are sheep ready to be herded in any direction that keeps them in good stead with the administration,” and people in positions of power and authority are just mainly “’partially-educated’ toadies” who are indifferent (if not actively hostile) to “the ‘real’ purpose” of higher education,” I still cannot fault Srigley’s rant out-of-hand. Moreover, Fullicks’ screed in defence of the current state of affairs does not lack unsubstantiated rhetorical flourishes and substantive exaggerations itself.

    What Fullick misses, of course, is the overall corporatization of postsecondary schools, the commodification of curriculum, the reduction of pedagogy to “curriculum delivery,” the commercialization of research, the restructuring of the faculty labour process to the point where “Associate Professors” are in danger of being transformed into the academic equivalent of “Walmart Associates” with upwards of 75% of all teaching being done by timid and intimidated “precarious” employees, the emerging dominance of technologically mediated teaching and learning, the financial starvation of scholarship except in the privileged STEM programs, the vocationalization of the postsecondary “experience,” the relentless demand for intellectual “entrepreneurship,” the erosion of academic freedom, creeping privatization and the redefinition of students as “customers” or “clients” with the effective power to judge faculty (and thereby destroy careers) according to surveys of “customer satisfaction.”

    Respectful discussions of these and other undeniable facts of life in the academy would be pleasant and might even be constructive; however, we live in a political economy in which anything akin to Jürgen Habermas’ “ideal speech situation” in which competing views are debated among people seeking real solutions in good faith and uncontaminated by coercion just ain’t happenin’ and won’t (as they say on CNN) “anytime soon.”

    Welcome to K-Mart Kollege!

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