Interview: @Home in the public sphere

In February and March, 2012, Dr. Grace Pollock of the Public Intellectuals Project (at McMaster University) published a written interview with me; it was published in two parts, and the links to the original posts are provided below:

@Home in the Public Sphere – Part 1 (February 28, 2012).

@Home in the Public Sphere – Part 2 (March 21, 2012).


The economics of learning

I wrote up a few comments about a conference held at OISE in February 2012, where the discussion of potential new universities in Ontario often returned to a recommendation that the province create teaching-focussed institutions. This separation of teaching and research doesn’t take into account – among other things – the lack of prestige attached to teaching work in universities. Here is a link to the original post from February 17, 2012: The economics of learning.

Last week on February 7, a conference was held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE) on the subject of the new universities (or campuses) that have been proposed by the Ontario provincial government. The conference included speakers who discussed various issues relating to the creation of the new campuses, and there was also a particular focus on ideas put forth in the book written by Ian D. Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, entitled Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario. Though unable to attend the conference in person, I was able to watch it live from home via OISE’s webcasting system; since I’ve been following this issue for a number of months, I thought I might share some comments.

As conference participants discussed, there are many possibilities for what new “teaching oriented universities” might look like. The question is, what’s the context of their creation and what actual forms and practices will emerge? What kinds of “campuses” will these be, and what logic will drive their governance? For example, will they be like the liberal arts colleges of the United States where prestigious faculty engage in teaching while also producing research? My guess is that the answer is “no”, because this would conflict with the need to save money by significantly increasing teaching assignments per professor, which — as it turns out — is the goal.

One thing I felt was a bit lacking at the conference was discussion of the fact that in the broader “academic economy” teaching is simply considered less prestigious than research, and that means a hierarchy of institutions is likely to emerge. In a differentiated system, universities will tend be different, but not “equal.” What will be the implications of this for the new universities, for the hiring of teaching staff (for example)? Will faculty hires see these institutions as less desirable stops on the road to a “real” university job at a research-oriented university? I believe one speaker, Tricia Seifert of OISE, did address this problem by suggesting (among other things) that we should do more during PhD education to privilege teaching and to build the prestige of pedagogical work in the academic profession.

A related point is that in Drs. Clark, Trick and Van Loon’s model, there seemed to be an assumption that teaching quality operates in a simplistically quantitative way (behaviourism never really goes away, does it). A 4-4 teaching “load” (80% teaching, 10% research, 10% service) is not just about having the same number of students split up into smaller classes; juggling and planning for multiple classes is more work. As Rohan Maitzen pointed out on Twitter, teaching involves more than “just standing there” (many hours of preparation, for example).

To continue with the theme of prestige and the devaluing of teaching, what I noticed when I read the book excerpt is that the word “university” is going to be applied to the new institutions partly as a means of marketing them to squeamish students. The authors state explicitly that “every effort in Ontario to create a label that resides in between colleges and universities – such as “institute of technology,” “polytechnic university,” “university college” and the like – has failed to find acceptance and has led to requests for further changes.” Yet somehow “mission drift” — the tendency of universities to want to climb the ladder to a more research oriented status — must be prevented through government regulation and a strict mandate.

This is one reason why existing institutions may be disappointed if the think they will be sharing in the new expansion. What “new” means is not an extension of other campuses, nor a conversion of an institution of one kind into a different type (i.e. college into university); what’s desired is a “clean slate.” A likely goal is to save money by preventing the duplication of governance structures like unions and tenure, because these reduce “flexibility” and increase costs. This could lead to the 31% cost savings predicted by the authors, who nevertheless expect the new universities’ faculty salaries and benefits will remain competitive (my prediction is that salaries will be lower).

The purposes for building new teaching universities are not just pedagogical but also economic and political. Providing more access to postsecondary education is politically expedient and also matches the economic logic of the day, which is that building human capital for the knowledge economy can only occur through increased PSE acquisition. But as Harvey Weingarten pointed out at the OISE conference, campuses can’t be built unless there is government funding available for the purpose — and now we’re hearing that there isn’t any funding. I suspect that the release of the Drummond Report this week only confirms this, adding pressure to the process of imagining new teaching-intensive universities. It may now be even more difficult to ensure that pedagogical rather than just economic logic is what wins out.

Teaching the ineffable

Working with prospective teachers led to this post about what teaching “looks” like, how we imagine it should look, and how our expectations inform our assumptions about learning. Here is a link to the original post from February 9, 2012: Teaching the ineffable.

Recently I’ve been re-thinking (again!) about what it is that we (citizens, persons, societies) expect from education and how this related to the nature of knowledge and learning. At the moment I’m working with a small group of teacher candidates (TCs) in a concurrent B.Ed program. The course, which is a requirement for the students to progress in the program, is structured around attending a weekly placement at a community organization.

The idea behind the practicum is that TCs can encounter new kinds of experience, knowledge and relationships through their placements. Often the placements don’t involve what would normally be seen as “teaching,” and they usually don’t happen in schools; this is an attempt to unbind the idea of teaching-relevant experience and knowledge from what is most evidently associated with institutional environments, i.e. the school and the classroom. Learning happens everywhere; the school walls don’t define the space of our educational experiences. The community and the city, in turn, become sources of knowledge from which schools/teachers can learn to better understand, engage and include students and families.

What seems to be the case with many students is that they’ve inherited a blinkered view of what kind of experience “counts” towards one’s teaching practice, and of where and how this experience is to be acquired. This idea is entirely reasonable considering the systemic contexts in which most people encounter education and teaching at the primary and secondary levels. “Learning,” to many of us, is something long associated with formal education rather than with the everyday interactions and encounters that happen around the community and elsewhere. But children (and adults) learn everywhere, and that informal knowledge is something that shapes people’s experiences in formal settings.

Nothing about this approach feels easy. Many undergraduate students are still very “close” to their own experiences of education in the public primary and secondary system, which shape their expectations of the B.Ed. They’re also experiencing the pressure of professionalization within an explicitly defined field, so naturally they’re seeking out what will help them to fit into the system (not what will problematize the profession itself). Without professional skills, they won’t find employment. And I have my own challenges to face: how do we work within — and work to expand — the parameters I just described? How does one assess engagement, social justice, ethics, reflexivity, or the ever-elusive “critical thinking”? What happens when the assignments have no fixed value as part of a grade?

I use the example of TCs because it’s readily available to me, but I would say the dilemma about motivation and the pursuit of “relevant knowledge” is a version of what’s experienced by many undergraduate students (and by the faculty who teach them). It informs how students pick their classes and academic programs, and it’s directly connected to what each of us imagines we will need to go forth and succeed in the wide world. What I’ve noticed is that the quest for only what is immediately or obviously relevant is usually accompanied by an instrumentalist view of learning as well: “how many pages should I write, how many sources must I use, for what percentage of my grade?

Our program strives to foster reflexivity between practical experience and theoretical questioning. Philosophically, this approach is not new: Alfred North Whitehead argued in 1929 that “ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations” are “inert”; John Dewey advocated a kind of problem-based/experiential approach over 100 years ago. Knowledge is in itself an experience, one that must be inhabited; it is a house we build for ourselves. But knowing about something takes work. Often a lot of effort is required not only to make contact with knowledge but also to “make it one’s own”, a part of oneself that goes beyond memorization and regurgitation. For example, we all know that having “done the readings” for class is not the same as having an understanding of what an author or theorist is really saying.

As educators we can only help students to a certain point — the point of interpretation beyond which their own motivation must carry them. Until they’ve had that experience of knowledge, it’s very difficult to explain the “goal” of learning beyond what seems technically useful, and to show that moments of deep understanding can be life-altering. Perhaps it’s true as Whitehead stated, that “in education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place”-? And if the thorny route is the one that takes us where we want to go, how do we convince students that what lies at the end is worth the walking?

Access denied? – Considering SOPA and higher ed

This post addresses the potential implications of US SOPA and PIPA bills for the larger higher ed landscape. Here is a link to the original post, from January 23, 2012: Access denied? Considering SOPA & higher ed.

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, BoingBoingand others.

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 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.

Lazy higher ed journalism

I started the piece that turned into this essay after reading one too many news items about the same themes in higher education. it’s amusing to read it now, since certain ed-tech themes have come to dominate the discussion so heavily throughout 2012 and 2013. But much of this I’d say is still relevant, including the points about rankings, the obsession with whether higher education is “worth it”, and the concern with competitive recruiting of (the best) international students. Here is a link to the original post from January 17, 2012: Lazy higher ed journalism.

To kick off the New Year, I decided to devote some attention to the important topic of myth-busting. After coming across Tom Bennett’s excellent post, “The Ten Commandments of Lazy Education Journalism,” I felt compelled to compile the following list that addresses a roughly equivalent set of pet peeves from the world of higher ed news.

1. Higher education: Is it “worth it”? Yes. And no.

I’ve combined both sides of this argument and placed them at the top of my list, because I want to make the connection between the recession, the expansion of postsecondary enrollment, increases in tuition and the emphasis on economic “value” derived from education. This line of argument also tends to invoke the need for measurements of institutional “quality” and job market viability. As tuition increases — and government funding is stretched more thinly — the economics of education have become much more of a concern. But ultimately money must be one concern among many, taking into account the non-calculable aspects of education and the apparent mismatch between monetary “investment and return” that these sometimes entail.

2. Surprise: higher education doesn’t guarantee you a job

…and yet we don’t have enough college graduates (or perhaps, as others argue, we have too many). Never mind; higher enrollments (and higher tuition) are the answer, even if that means more students have to go into debt. The problem here is that a degree itself has never been the only thing affecting one’s chances of finding a job. Market scarcity, privilege, individual capacities, and social and economic capital operate among other factors. The oft-cited correlation between higher education and employability doesn’t necessarily imply direct causality.

3. Yearly rankings released; Ivy League and Oxbridge universities hold top spots.

Of course, critiques of ranking methodologies are frequently put forth by low-ranking and yo-yoing universities. But I’d love to see rankings reports as an opportunity to examine the institutional effects of competition in a global higher education “market,” and to consider what’s actually signified by “rank,” given that the same universities consistently dominate (and that most of the world’s students won’t be attending these institutions).

4. Technology will save higher education. Or…

…on the other hand, technology — along with free-market economics — will blow higher education apart, “disrupting” it and making it irrelevant. Too often this involves simplistic and technologically determinist arguments. The pressures of economy, the lure of futurology, and the pressing need for a “fix” to chronic problems make these arguments seductive. From edupreneurs and edupunks to “parseltongues,” we see a proliferation of concepts that aim to capture what may or may not be influential and enduring elements of education’s techno-libertarian future.

5. International students are the answer to intellectual and financial deficits.

Where immigration meets academic recruitment, international students from “developing” and/or BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are the latest hot commodity. But does this not seem like an unsustainable, potentially exploitative way to fund education? Which students will be able to participate in this market? It seems there is only a thin stratum of the mobile elite, assuming a certain level of (economic) privilege entailed by the higher tuition and costs of living, and the available slice of academically gifted students is even smaller. Ramped-up recruitment also reinforces the academic dominance of Western institutions. The flip-side of this trend is the appearance of branch campuses, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, which could be viewed as another sign of the valuing of Western education over “local” forms.

6. Research shows: students aren’t as smart now as they were in the past.

Often the culprits are media and/or technology; grade inflation; or the sinking quality of high school education. A similar line of research makes the claim that students learn little that is demonstrable during university. Have we managed, yet, to develop accurate and reliable measures of student learning? That’s another question entirely, one that is seldom addressed, though the need for evaluation is assumed and the haggling over its purpose and method of continues apace (as it has done for over a century).

7. Universities are failing society, the government, and their “customers” (students).

Directly related to #6, this is a parallel to a point from Tom Bennett’s post. We hear that universities don’t contribute enough to the economy in the form of “innovation”. They don’t produce enough human capital to fuel the knowledge economy, the right number of graduates in the right fields for the moment (particularly in the STEM disciplines); and in general, university education doesn’t prepare grads for the job market, for academic careers, or for the “real world”.

8. Universities are inefficient…

…and the solution is [insert overly simplistic idea that’s already been suggested]. Often it’s argued that privatized, marketized education is the answer when it comes to universal accessibility and financial efficiency. And there’s nothing like comparing higher education to industries such as high-end car production, to drive the point home. Of course, since there are no economies of scale in education and nor is it a one-time purchase, the comparison isn’t really a valid one. Knowledge is inefficient. So is learning. Yet the more we “invest” in education, the more we continue to try to pin down its ultimate ingredients and link those in turn to the “outcomes” we desire.

9. It’s all the fault of the faculty.

Naturally, one of the reasons why universities are struggling financially is because professors are overpaidfor the work they do; another criticism is that professors prefer research over teaching undergraduates,which is why high tuition is “not worth it.” Sometimes we see examples provided of the outrageous pedagogical practices and academic ideas of professors protected by academic freedom (and high pay). A “solution”? Tenure should be abolished and a free market established for academic work. Tenure is also critiqued for entrenching academic orthodoxy whilst preventing the diversification of academe. Whatever grains of truth they may contain, these arguments personalize systemic issues, they project and individualize, blaming professors for what is really the outcome of decades of social, economic, and political change as well as myriad policy decisions made at various levels.

10. Higher education has lost its way; here’s the real purpose of the university.

Almost everyone seems to have had a go at this issue. I’ve often wished I could feel the certainty that so many commentators seem to enjoy about the role of the university. It’s surprising (or is it?) that we often see the same or similar criticisms and prescriptions being rearticulated regularly in public debates. The nature of critiques, and the prescriptions that tend to accompany them, is important because we must agree on an idea of what is “good” before we can change the university and make it a “better” institution. Changes tend to be based upon a logic that justifies their implementation. Thus most other assumptions about higher education hinge on the notion of its (assumed) purpose.

All the issues listed above are key themes concerning higher education, and universities more specifically. Because of their importance, I think the discussion needs to be made broader and deeper, and also more nuanced. There is still a major role for the media in shaping public debates over political issues, and universities can be deeply affected by this. The more the public has a concern with higher education and its institutions, the more the stakes are raised for institutions in helping to frame the great debate about our academic future.

Cracking the code for employment

I wrote this post after reading one too many articles about how coding is the skill that leads to a job. It’s a skill all right, and a useful one, but will it definitely lead to a job? We return again to the “purpose” of learning, or of education – and because of context so many people are fixated on seeking the magic formula for employment, and other factors are diminished. We also lose sight of the process by which people actually do end up with meaningful employment. Here is a link to the original post, from January 13, 2012:Cracking the code for unemployment .

The question of whether postsecondary education is a good investment, of whether the “risk” is too much or if it is “worth it,” is one generally framed in terms of economic value now that PSE credentials have become ever more expensive and necessary for larger numbers of people.

Of course the correlation is there — I’d be the last one to deny it; graduates of PSE programs earn more over their lifetimes and are more likely to advance in their careers than those without such credentials. But how exactly does the correlation map out in practice? How do postsecondary graduates actually find and obtain jobs? How do they build their careers? And what image of this journey are we projecting, in the media and in classrooms? How are students being encouraged to make the connection between education and employment, and what are the consequences of that?

These are difficult questions because they relate to process: what happens between the point at which a student begins a degree and the time it is completed, such that somehow a student can obtain employment later?

Heavily emphasizing or highlighting certain skill sets, courses and degree programs because they are more highly correlated with employment is a bad idea because job markets can shift rapidly, and also because it places the skill or knowledge base outside of its larger context. As a small example, in this article the skill of computer coding is described as something that can “get you a job.” But stating this, alongside average hourly wages for computer programmers, is to present what looks like an overly simplistic equation. Who finds work that involves coding, and what is its use? How much experience, and of what kind, is required? How does coding fit into a larger skill set in a way that would help a candidate to “stand out” in a large pool of applicants?

Focusing on the university-to-job correlation without a balance of attention to process can mean that we place less value and emphasis on looking for other ways to build careers. And it means reducing the attention we pay to extra-educational factors, not only the enthusiasm, energy, talent, and work ethic that one may or may not bring to one’s education but also the privilege or lack of it, the social and cultural capital, and the many other factors that can be beyond the scope of one’s education-to-career planning.

There are no short cuts and no easy plans — no easy mapping of knowledge to employment, now that overcrowding plagues even formerly stable professions such as teaching and law. To imply that there is ever really a “guarantee” from a degree is to lead students down the garden path; it raises unrealistic expectations and re-inscribes unhelpful assumptions.

Even the availability of a degree-related job doesn’t guarantee one’s career pick. I recall about two years ago I met a young Belgian man at the hostel where I was staying in Picton, New Zealand, and by coincidence we ended up taking the same early morning ferry back to Wellington together. He came from a well-educated family, and had gone to university at 18 to become a doctor, as his parents expected. But now in his early 20s, having just completed his medical training, he seemed at a loss. He didn’t want to practice medicine, though he’d earned the credential; he’d done it not because he desired to use his time and talents in that field, but because it was just the next thing to do. I thought it was interesting that he had obtained a desirable professional degree but was now at loose ends, not even because of the job market but because of his own lack of direction outside of the university program.

Among other things, knowing yourself — your own capacity, your predilections, strengths and weaknesses and how you learn and think and function in different environments — is extremely important for making the decisions that lead to a career. There is little point in cobbling together a random kit of recommended skills if you have no real interest in those skills or in the things they enable you to do; you might find a job, but I think it’s unlikely that the recipe for employment will turn out the way you planned. Even an economic assessment of a possible career path must take non-economic, less tangible factors into account if it is to prove of any worth.

PhD education and mental health: A follow-up

In December, 2011, I wrote a blog post about PhD students and metal health as a major issue in graduate education. The post below is one that I wrote to build on the many issues that came out of discussions generated by that first piece. Here is a link to the original post from January 3, 2012: PhD education and mental health: A follow-up.

As my first post for 2012, I want to provide a bit of a follow-up to my previous piece about PhD students and mental health issues.

Though I always had the sense there was a problem with mental health in grad school and especially during the PhD, I was still surprised by the intense reaction to my post. As I write this, there are 38 comments (not counting the one I left myself). Some of these comments are very moving and all of them are refreshingly honest, and I’m extremely thankful that so many of you shared your experiences and insights. Throughout this post I will link to your comments directly.

Through Twitter, Facebook, and the comments on my post, many relevant points were raised. Some people discussed an assumed “ideal” for PhD students, and a sense of guilt and self-doubt they felt when they “failed” to live up to this, which in turn can be exacerbated by the isolation of the process and by the apparent lack of structure in advanced academic work. Others mentioned the persistently gendered (masculine) nature of the scholarly ideal, with women being affected by systemic biases that implicate them differently in academic work as well as in parenthood and family life. Bumblebee wrote that the effect of PhD problems on intimate relationships could be disastrous, particularly without institutional support.

I focused on some of the structural issues in PhD education because I think they contribute to a “pluralistic ignorance” — the fact that a student may believe that she is the only one with a problem, and blame herself for it as well, even while others are experiencing the same thing. Several people commented that compounded by insecurity and isolation, the lack of acknowledgment of and open discussion about depression and mental health issues — the “silence” associated with stigma — is actually the most significant problem because it prevents students from seeking help either from the university or from their peers.

Another effect of silence is that prospective students cannot necessarily make an informed decision about whether to enter a PhD program at the outset (and which program and supervisor to choose). Marketization of higher education is problematic because it encourages institutions to persuade students to enroll rather than informing them about their “best fit” for the program or department. A PhD program tends to be a “black box” in terms of information about problematic aspects of the course and/or the negative experiences of students. This is only compounded by not asking students who leave about the reasons for their departure (reasons that are not always negative—as noted by Alex O).

In another comment, Lil makes the crucial point that accessing support services on campuses can be a trial in itself. Students need somewhere else to turn for support and perspective when significant academic relationships begin to turn sour. But it can take time — sometimes weeks — to land an appointment with a counsellor, and in some cases students will be speaking with a trainee rather than an experienced professional. Usually they will be speaking with someone who is not familiar with the PhD process and the kinds of issues that can arise during it. Often there are a limited number of appointments available to each student in a given period, and since these services tend not to be covered by available health benefits, the student may not be able to afford to go anywhere else for help. Some students may feel too uncomfortable even to seek out professional assistance, which requires a kind of self-exposure that can be off-putting.

Of course not everyone who enters a PhD program will suffer from mental health problems. Students with a lack of social and academic support and/or past histories of depression are more likely to be vulnerable (and this applies to other high-level forms of education as well). But it’s important to consider carefully the nature of academic environment and the ways in which it can affect students’ experiences, both the good and the bad. Graduate students, like all students, are not only learning but also becoming different people; they are “changed” by their experience, and this includes the psychological and the emotional as well as the academic and professional.

Many of the comments I received thanked me for being brave enough to write publicly about this issue. On the one hand it’s disturbing to me that there is such a lack of public discussion in spite of the apparent pervasiveness of the problem. Then again, if my posts can be used as a way to open the door to that discussion, then I’m happy about it indeed.

“My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition.

I wrote this post about depression and attrition among PhD students, thinking I’d probably chosen a topic that would only be of interest to a niche audience. To my surprise it became the most popular blog post I’d written (and still is). I still think this indicates that not enough public attention has been directed to the structural elements that contribute to mental health issues among PhDs and in other student groups as well.

In a follow-up post I addressed a number of the issues that had been raised in the comments on the initial piece. These include the role of the “ideal” for and of students; insecurity and isolation; lack of information before applying for the PhD, and the difficulty of accessing resources to help with mental health issues.

The first post was republished on on January 3, 2012, and a summary appeared on The Scholarly Web on the Times Higher Education UK website on January 12, 2012. Here is a link to the original piece from December 14, 2011:  My grief lies all within” — PhD students, depression & attrition.

From November to March is prime time for academic burn-out in graduate programs — I’m convinced of that. Perhaps it’s a seasonal thing; it can be easy to sink into a trough of exhaustion and stress, and not climb out of it for months. But rather than just the seasonal doldrums, my sense is that clinical depression, extreme anxiety and other mental health issues are becoming more common in graduate programs as well as in undergraduate education.

I asked one fellow student her opinion of this, and she replied, “it seems like everyone I know in academia is depressed.” On another occasion when I was very unwell, I was told that “everyone” has some kind of breakdown during the PhD; my troubles were nothing to worry about!

Is this a serious structural (and normalized) issue rather than an anecdotal one, and if so, why is no one discussing it? When I sampled the Twitterverse, I received many replies reinforcing and elaborating the impression that yes, this is a problem — perhaps now more than ever — and that it can’t be reduced to students’ individual propensities and “weaknesses.”

In the current context, there are plenty of structural issues that contribute to the PhD as a time when students are vulnerable to stress.

Within their programs, students face a more intense workload than in their undergraduate degrees, and they may for the first time be around students with as much academic aptitude as themselves. These factors can contribute to “imposter syndrome,” the sense that one is about to be “found out” for not really being smart enough. As adults being placed in a subordinate position, some PhD students experience a sense of infantilization alongside the conflicting expectation that they develop a professional identity.

In terms of the student’s academic experience, the PhD emphasizes a transition to autonomous work that is often a new challenge. The lack of structure, and unclear boundaries about responsibilities, mean that some students are unsure what help they “can” ask for from supervisors. This is compounded by the lengthy isolation from peers that often occurs in the later stages of research (in the humanities and social sciences at least).

Career-related pressures in academe have intensified in the face of recession and long-term political economic changes that have affected the university and its governance. Graduate programs in Canada and elsewhere have increased enrollments often without proportional increases to the tenured faculty who provide supervision, or to non-repayable funding. The shortage of funding can lead to student debt and other financial difficulties as well as more intense competition for grants and teaching positions, and pressure to “complete” sooner. Fewer tenured faculty means that students may need to compete for academic mentorship and support as well. And all these changes have helped to feed further competition in the form of a tightened market for academic (i.e. tenure-track faculty) jobs; this kind of competition can be depressing and stressful.

While only a relatively small proportion of PhD graduates obtain permanent faculty positions, in many PhD programs there is still a deeply-held assumption that students can or should strive to engage in research-oriented academic careers. Thus the definition of successtends to be rather narrow, making it easier to feel like a “failure.”

The culture of academic replication — the inculcation of certain academic goals above all others, in spite the “reality” of the larger job market for PhDs — has been roundly criticized, even compared to a cult. Taking on an awkward double stance, many students are engaging in a process of translation and re-valuation of themselves and their work that continues until long after the degree is over; some must overcome a long-held sense of exceptionalism with regards to their academic chances.

And of course, alongside the professional pressures there are also the so-called “personal” issues and events that affect everyone, and which can throw one’s entire degree (and life) off-track if they occur — a break up or divorce, for example, which can itself result from relationship problems triggered by the academic lifestyle.

A larger problem is not only the context described above (and its effects), but also the thickly oppressive silence that surrounds it. Not coincidentally, I think, there is a parallel silence around the issue of attrition. Considering the high rate of attrition from PhD programs and the cost of graduate education, you’d assume there would be a plenty of research on the reasons why students “drop out.” But according to Chris Golde (2000) we still don’t have much information on why students leave PhD programs, partly because PhD attrition “looks bad” for everyone involved (responsibility for this “failure” is usually transferred to the student). I wonder how many students simply leave due to mental health and related issues brought on or exacerbated by the psychological minefield of the PhD process — and how much of this is preventable.

Invention vs. innovation – Edison meets Tesla?

We hear the word “innovation” regularly in discussions about the role of universities, and in particular in Canada where there is said to be an “innovation gap” in the economy. Building on a previous piece, in the following post I raise the rivalry between Edison and Tesla, since those two figures are oft-cited in the discussion of how scientific advances happen and how they’re turned into commercial success. Here is a link to the original post, from November 28, 2011: Invention vs. innovation – Edison meets Tesla?

After the post I wrote recently about innovation, I noticed that yet more articles have been popping up in the wake of the report I was discussing, including this one by Tom Jenkins who was part of the team that produced the report.

Then as I listening to Radio NZ recently, I heard a BBC history segment on the relationship between Edison and Tesla, and some of Tesla’s attitudes made me think of the way Edison’s example is invoked by Jenkins both in the report and in his article.

There is a long and complex story behind the relationship between Tesla and Edison, but suffice to say that after one of their conflicts Tesla ended up digging ditches for a while. In any case, Tesla apparently regarded Edison as a mere tinkerer, someone who purchased, and marginally improved on, the things others had created. Tesla’s assessment may have been drawing a line between discovery and invention, rather than between invention and innovation. Edison pioneered a kind of production-line process using many assistants; he also raised capital before embarking on a venture (sound familiar?).

From this description it seems to me that Edison was an entrepreneur, while Tesla was more of a scientist. And in the end, Tesla’s work is still with us, in spite of Edison’s PR campaign against him during the “War of Currents.” Politics was indeed at play.

Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has also chimed in on the innovation issue, with an article about Steve Jobs as consummate “innovator.” Martin also argued earlier this year that SSHRC had shortchanged MBA students by not offering them designated funding (even though this is not how it works for other disciplines; and MBAs don’t usually do academic research). Clearly the arguments about “innovation” are also arguments about resource distribution. Policies have been critiqued as failing, but this isn’t enough for advocates to leave off asking for government funding and planning of R&D.

James Colliander, a math professor at U of T, has responded with a blog post in which he argues that the point about Steve Jobs is off the mark, since rather than producing original scientific or technological advances, Jobs produced original synthesis and design.

So it seems we’re still stuck on the notion of innovation as a means of producing marketable objects and processes, or so I gather from quotes like this one (from Martin): “commercial success and impact is more about innovation than about invention.” While this “is typically the product of the curiosity of a scientist”, “it can be pretty irrelevant when it is a technology in search of a user.”

It’s interesting to see, over in the UK, inventor and entrepreneur James Dyson is funding a new professorship at Cambridge. Dyson is arguing that even when we don’t know where research is going, it’s important to invest in it, especially when the government is cutting back. It may seem like a shame we live in an era when the noblesse oblige of large corporations and private foundations is what we must rely on. But at the same time, government intervention as a primary mobiliser of science and technology is relatively new in history, and discovery and innovation have not usually occurred in just one isolated environment.

Arnold Pacey argues in his book The Maze of Ingenuity that the environments in which scientific discovery and innovation take place are those where there is generally more than merely a monetary motivation for the great scientific discoveries of the past; such environments were also sheltered from full exposure to market forces. So somehow science must always be “protected” both from the market and also (Dyson’s view) from undue political intervention, which itself is now linked directly to economic development.

I would argue that it’s not a question of whether scientists, business, or the government are good at “picking winners.” The issue of needing to pick a “winner” at all is the problem. I’ve quoted James Burke more than once in some of my previous blog posts (including the last one!), but here he is again, discussing the unpredictable and non-linear nature of “discovery.” I still question the use of these definitions of terms and the narratives they’re being used to construct, which are split along the old lines — applied, theoretical; practical, “speculative;” and so on. What would be truly “innovative” to me would be a change to the discussion so that these definitions were no longer the only categories available.

The aims of education?

Sometimes (well, often) when we engage in debates about education, we take for granted the ways in which underlying concepts provide a basis for assumptions about education’s purpose – and thus a framing for the discussion. In this post I discussed the critiques of education that we often see in media coverage and political argumentation, and how education is perpetually “failing” because it’s assigned a task that can never be complete. Here is a link to the original post from November 18, 2011: The aims of education?

Something that characterises education, as a practice and as a discipline, is the constant stream of public critiques levelled at education systems, educators, administrators, parents, researchers, and on and on — by each other and also by those not immediately involved in education. This kind of sustained contentiousness is not the same as the assumed trajectory of “progress” in which one theory or practice trumps another after a time, such as generally happens in other academic and professional fields. Education is distinctive not only because the critiques come from many different groups and are very highly politicised, fracturing and emotionally fraught, but also because the same kinds of theories, remedies, assumptions and attacks seem to be repeated over time in an almost cyclical fashion, which is both fascinating and deeply troubling.

I’ve been considering this again recently, after I began reading Kieran Egan’s book The Future of Education. Egan describes a version of the long-term conflict over education in chapter 2 of the book, where he argues that over time the same few strands of argument have underpinned most debates about education, its theory and its practice. Because the existing arguments assume contradictory purposes for education, there are perpetual problems with reconciling the many demands being placed on education systems over time.

Following the path of “unpacking” education’s assumed purpose rapidly leads us to some deep and difficult questions, the answers to which reflect our most basic assumptions about who we are, how our minds work, and what kind of world we should live in. What is “knowledge”, and how do we acquire it? Do we begin life with minds that are “blank slates”, ready to be inscribed with culture, or are we biologically determined to behave the way we do? Should education be elitist, cultivating only the “best minds”, or equitable, offering a fair chance to everyone? Should educational methods employ rational discipline, or give students total freedom? Should learning be about memorising facts, or understanding broader ideas and theories; should it be standardised, or individualised?

Education in the present is perpetually concerned with the future, which may explain the comparative lack of emphasis on the study of education history. There is another cause for conflict here, because our assumptions about education involve the fundamental dream of shaping and controlling the future, of providing a form of certainty in an uncertain world. Education becomes a means of realising desires for the future, for individuals as well as for states and societies. This is why education is so vehemently contested; because they who can make a claim to control the future, to show that their version of the future will be better, can make a claim to power. The close relationship between education and governance lies here, where prediction lays claim to political authority.

Perversely, education’s full effects are unseen until the future, which is why the “impact” of education is so hard to measure. And yet we continue to try to do so, because of the idea that the (potential of the) future should somehow be demonstrable in particular ways, in the present. This is a heavy demand; not only is learning simultaneously an individual/subjective and a social phenomenon, but its effects are not “complete”, nor fully visible in the present. The time of learning continues even when the time of assessment is over. For this reason the measurement of learning is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in education governance, even as governmental and public desire for certainty — validated by numbers — increases.

The task of education is never complete. Criticisms continue in perpetuity because education never achieves the aims and goals set out for it, which appear to be a series of moving targets that multiply as oppositional viewpoints battle it out in the spheres of policy and public debate. Education has never “succeeded” because we have not yet had a utopia by anyone’s definition, and because there are some problems that simply defy the remedy supposedly provided (the mitigation of capitalism’s negative effects by literate democracy is one that comes to mind). All this is not to say that we should be losing hope or giving up on some idea of education as a good thing, as important. My view is not one of cynicism. Rather, I’m keen to know and understand the past and in what ways we may be unconsciously reiterating historical problems in the present; my hope is that we can somehow avoid perpetuating what we continue to critique.