Word watching

For this post at University of Venus blog, I discussed my academic background in communication studies and linguistics. It’s a bit of a reminder that I tend to automatically kick into language-analysis mode, without realising what I’m doing – but that can be a good thing, since I end up not taking the terms for granted. Here is a link to the original post, from November 15, 2011: Word watching.

Often when writing blog posts or papers, I end up dissecting not just a policy or educational issue but also the specific terms in which it is being described and discussed. I start to pick apart the terms and limits of the discussion alongside my engagement with the argument. Far from being a quirky habit, this kind of attention to language is a key element of much of the work I do.

My fascination with language use emerged partly from an early interest in media representations and the ways in which they could obfuscate what seemed like “real life”. Why did the language in the news not “match” the things I had experienced or read about elsewhere? Could language be “hiding” something? If so, what was being hidden and how? I became fascinated with propaganda, mediation, and ideology, my curiosity piqued by the immediate context of the 9/11 attacks and the second Iraq war.

Later after returning to university, I learned about critical theories of communication and linguistics. LinguistNorman Fairclough emphasizes that language use involves conscious as well as unconscious choices, and plays a role in the maintenance of social structures and power relations. Foucaults ideas highlighted the larger formations into which institutional practices and everyday exchanges of words might coalesce over time. Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis focused on technologies of communication and their effects on the nature of what is communicated.

As well as learning the content of the curriculum, I began to understand what was constraining it:  the context of the institution (the university). I became interested in the relationships between pedagogy, communication, and governance, which led to my research focus on language and institutional change. Universities were employing forms of “strategic planning”, borrowing from the realm of management science. These forms tend to assume a need for change not only to the practices of the institution but also to its culture, and I wanted to examine the role of language and discourse in this re-formation.

The study of language raises deeper questions about reality, agency, and knowledge. To me the way language is used is very important, but not in a rigidly determinist way. I don’t believe that words precede thought or determine the limits of thought, or that words can dictate to us what to think. Neither do I agree with the idea that all reality is socially constructed. If any one thing characterizes all language and language use, it is their inherent complexity. This was part of what drew me to study the way language works in social life. Language is reflexive, not merely reflective or constructive; while it re-presents (aspects of) our reality it also has an effect on that reality, given the way we act on our attitudes and beliefs.

When a word is used over and over without a definition being provided, there is an assumption being made. Assumptions are always necessary in language—this is how we can agree on the meanings of words without having to re-define them every time we have a conversation. But consider how many words we use regularly without necessarily having more than a limited, functional grasp of their meanings; words like knowledge, discovery, creativity, innovation. These words are embedded in policy documents as well as in the everyday language of people participating in academic institutions. They’re the same, often nebulous, terms that are used to frame debates on crucial academic issues.

More specific clusters of words can come to be associated in our minds with entire programs of policy: performance, accountability, flexibility. Efficiency, evidence, choice. Each of these terms takes on a function constructed on a scaffold of presupposition; each can be identified as playing a role in a “discourse” (corporate”, managerialneoliberal). Many academics, angry and frustrated with new programs of governance, have an extremely negative reaction when these words are used. This kind of reaction tells us something about the depth of inter-connection between our language, our experiences in the world, and our emotions.

Hence the struggle over language—it can define the evident parameters of a debate, helping to exclude or minimize facts, experiences and viewpoints that don’t fit with a preferred version of events. As Fairclough(1989) reminds us, language use is a choice, whether conscious or unconscious, and abstractions are usually realized in specific material ways. Critical awareness of language means never taking for granted the terms of the discussion, or the ways in which those terms will be translated to help produce –or stymie—versions of change.


Universities and the media, part 2: Why the media matter.

This is the second of two posts that I wrote following the Worldviews conference in June 2011. Here is a link to the original post, from June 23, 2011: Universities and the media, part 2: Why the media matter.

Yesterday I wrote about some of the main themes we find in current media coverage of post-secondary education, and of universities in particular. Much of this coverage is highly critical of various aspects of university education and in many cases these criticisms are entirely justified, particularly from the perspective of students and parents, who represent a large audience for education coverage.

In spite of highlighting relevant issues, the critical arguments made in the media and in the “crisis literature” (and even in the comment sections of news websites) often seem ill informed. So while there are serious problems with some of the changes happening in universities, the debates that happen in the media don’t necessarily contribute to public debate in a productive way.

This is why one of the themes throughout the WorldViews conference was the presence or absence of “trust” in the university-media relationship and the ways in which the university can be “mis-represented” when it does not actively seek to inform publics about the nature of its role, its functioning, and its usefulness to society.

The assumptions underlying many critiques of post-secondary education tend to be the same assumptions that then frame suggestions for the reform, or renewal, of universities. It’s often argued that we must either return to (the best aspects of ) the university of the past, or destroy the institution utterly and begin again with a lighter, cheaper, more innovative and adaptable model, one that can somehow resolve the weighty tension between democratic and meritocratic that has become so much more evident in recent years; all the while becoming financially self-sustaining.

By some commentators, the techno-futuristic (and somewhat libertarian) argument is made that the introduction of new disruptive technologies, particularly the Internet and digital media, will force universities to change themselves and offer “value beyond content” as it were–since all “knowledge” will be available to students on the Web.

I think these arguments often ignore or discount the relational nature of education and conflate information with knowledge, assuming that education is the “delivery” of a product. They also reflect commitment to technological determinism, the idea that technologies drive social and cultural change; and they seem to assume that a high degree of individualism is necessary/desirable.

One issue I did not hear discussed at the WorldViews conference was whether post-secondary education earns more media attention now than in the past, and whether the nature of the coverage has changed over time. Because this question informs a part of my dissertation, I had it in my mind throughout the conference. I became interested in the question through having done media discourse analysis in the past, and through analysing universities’ public relations materials for my MA project.

The small amount of preliminary research I’ve done shows an increase to the amount of coverage universities receive, over a 30-year period. I’ll need a much more exhaustive corpus of news coverage from the 1970s and 1980s before I can say for sure, but I think the coverage has probably changed quantitatively as well as qualitatively, and that that’s the case then there are plenty of reasonable explanations for the change. (I was focussing only on one university, as well; I’d love to expand that and study the issue in more depth for a larger project.)

For one thing, universities now receive far more “exposure” to different publics; more people come into contact with universities than in the past. This is a process that began decades ago and has waxed and waned over time, but at the moment PSE enrolments are higher than ever before and so the student exposure alone has increased significantly. This process of massification (which I’ve also discussed here) was mentioned by Philip Altbach at a panel on the second day of the conference, but that was the only time I saw the issue raised explicitly.

Not only are there more students in the universities, but these students are paying more for their education. Tuition tends to be on the rise in the U.S. (e.g. in the collapsing California system), in Canada, and most notably of late, in the U.K. where the government has raised the tuition cap from about £3,000 to £9,000. The cost of education is being transferred onto the individual even as the value of education to the individual is seen to be in decline.

This form of privatisation tends to encourage a consumerist attitude towards education, and changes the dynamic between universities, students, parents and also the media. Rankings tables create comparisons between institutions that allow for informed consumer “choice” (among other things); Macleans magazine designs its yearly university rankings issue as a guide for student/family stakeholders. Because students are assumed to rely on their parents or families for this money, parents too become increasingly invested in the “quality” of university education.

Universities have responded to marketisation, and to the privatisation/diversification of their funding sources, by investing more in strategic communication including advertising and branding, various forms of public relations, and reputation building efforts aimed at different key stakeholder audiences (public/taxpayers, students, parents, the government, granting agencies, donors, alumni and so on). These efforts tend to affect media coverage as well.

Why does media coverage matter? With all the trends taken into account, it’s clear that government policy, not only in post-secondary education but also in science and technology, intellectual property, and other knowledge policy areas, affects more people than ever. It’s therefore more likely to be the subject of heated public debate.

Universities need to pay closer attention the ways in which universities and PSE in general are discussed in newspapers, on TV, in magazines, and on the Internet, because these media have a strong hand in setting the terms of that important discussion. This is also where the terms of policy may be set out openly, where members of the voting public begin to make choices about what they support politically.

Attitudes and beliefs are circulated, reinforced, and re-formed both in the news and in the discussions that happen that are based on or triggered by media coverage. And what people believe, they tend to act (or vote) on. Universities have ramped up their efforts to present themselves positively, yet coverage of university education has been dominated by overwhelmingly negative discourses.

What is the disconnect happening here, and what can universities do to better inform the debate about them that ultimately happens beyond their walls, and beyond their control? How do universities adapt to this fast-paced communicative context wherein critiques and problems are amplified so rapidly? I think this is one of the major challenges not just for universities but for all organisations, at a time when negative messages can easily “go viral” through social media.* Universities, with their deep institutional roots and their immediate connection to young people, may feel this pressure even more. They’ll also need to find an answer to it, since the (real and mediated) experiences of today’s students will eventually shape the decisions they make about the educational systems of tomorrow.

[*I’m interested to see whether universities begin to engage differently with students who already attend, and to enlist them in ongoing efforts to build reputation and shape expectations of future students and their parents.]

Universities and the media, part 1: What they say about us

Following the first Worldviews conference in June 2011, I wrote two posts that take up the issue of media coverage of universities and postsecondary education. This is a topic that interests me partly because it beings together two areas that I’ve been looking at for some time – media studies (and discourse analysis), and PSE.

Another angle that I haven’t been able to dig into very much is the influence of media coverage on policy-making in higher education. I did do a conference presentation on the 2008-2009 CUPE strike at York University and how this was discussed/debated in public and in the English-language news, but I haven’t yet done an in-depth piece about coverage of universities in the long term, which would  really have to be a book-length project. 

Here is a link to the first post, from June 22, 2011: Universities and the media, part 1 – What they say about us. The second post can be found here.

Last week I attended The WorldViews Conference on Media and Higher Education, which ran from the 16th to the 18th of June, 2011 in Toronto. I was able to spend the full three days at the conference, and was lucky to meet face-to-face many of the people with whom I’d already chatted on Twitter (notably, Mary Churchill and Lee Skallerup), and whose articles I had read in the press or academic journals.

I made a Twitter list of conference Tweeps, based on tweets using the #WV2011 tag. I also wrote a live blog during the sessions I attended at the conference; here are the links to my rough notes from day oneday two and day three of the conference, if you’re interested in seeing the content in more detail. There’s an archive of tweets from the conference (created by Caitlin Kealeyavailable here.

The conference addressed an array of issues including the effects of international rankings on university governance; the role of science journalism; the relationship between academic experts and journalists; the continued under-representation of expertise from women, people of colour, and members of developing/Global South countries; and, of course, the nature of media coverage of higher education.

What exactly does current (mainstream) media coverage of post-secondary education look like, and why does this matter?

One of the primary organising themes in media coverage of PSE is that of the value of education, usually its economic value (as measured by the additional income generated for individuals from a PSE credential). The question of value is usually posed as one of whether a degree is “worth it”—“it” being the cost of tuition and living expenses, or in some cases the debt that a student may incur if s/he cannot pay up-front. I’ve even addressed this theme a number of times here in my blog.

Advocates of the continuing value of PSE tend to argue that average post-graduation lifetime earnings justify the rising short-term cost of a university education, and/or that the non-monetary benefits of PSE should be recognised. But the chorus of critics has begun to drown out these optimistic (and often over-simplistic) arguments. Now that so many people are receiving university degrees, in an increasingly unstable global economy, there’s no “guarantee” that going to university will land you a job, let alone help you become “upwardly-mobile“. Since living costs and tuition are increasing rapidly, the calculation of “risk” and “reward” in higher education becomes more of a focus. More students are taking on loans, which increase the risk involved (one needs to be able to repay one’s debts from the additional income generated later).

Some coverage also focusses on how undergraduate students are “cheated” by a university system brimful of over-privileged professors who do very little work for high pay, and who would prefer not to have to deal with students at all. The university is already perceived as an arena for the elite, always somehow disconnected from “real” life and work, and such myths are reinforced by articles like this one from The Weekly Standard.

The assessment of value has also been applied to graduate education, and there’s a raft of commentary on the futility of the PhD, particularly in the Humanities. The “ponzi scheme” image is invoked as a means of highlighting the relationship between the “production” of new PhDs and the (proportionally) shrinking number of tenure track academic positions available.

The latest critiques link higher education directly to economic tropes, invoking concepts such as “sub-prime education” (a comparison between sub-prime mortgages in the United States, and student loans) and the idea of higher education as an economic “bubble”, popularised by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

News media articles, blog posts and think-tank reports are joined by books that represent not merely criticism but a “crisis literature,” like the infamous Academically Adrift in which the authors claim that universities are not performing well enough in their educative role (i.e. students are not “learning” anything), and even the more recent Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education from James Côté and Anton Allahar in Canada (both of whom also co-authored Ivory Tower Blues). While these books contain many valid critiques, and they do “stimulate [public] debate” as their authors usually intend (Côté & Allahar, 2011, p.3), the critiques are often presented in a sensationalistic or reductionist way.

Along with the many public arguments made about the failings of universities to educate students, there is a parallel if more specialised thread of critique. Often found in the business section of newspapers, this argument invokes “innovation” and commercialisation as under-developed in Canada—that universities should play a more effective (economic) role in their research and development capacity, too. It’s worth noting that this criticism has been levelled at universities, and at Canadian industry and funding councils, for decades (Dufour & de la Mothe, 1993, p.12).

In a second post tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the implications of some of these criticisms and the assumptions underlying them, as well as some of the reasons why media coverage of universities is important for students, faculty, and parents, and for politicians and policy makers.

Reference: Dufour, P. & de la Mothe, J. (1993). The historical conditioning of S&T. In De la Mothe, J. & Dufour, P. (Eds.), Science and technology in Canada (pp. 6–22). Harlow, UK: Longman.



Most excellent dudes – Gender, meritocracy, & media coverage of the Canada Excellence Research Chairs

This is the first Prezi I ever tried using for a conference presentation. Thankfully both the Prezi interface and my skills at using it have improved since 2011. The presentation is about the media coverage of the announcement about the Canada Excellence Research Chairs in 2010. There were protests that no women were even shortlisted for these prestigious and lucrative awards, and the ensuing debate reflected some of the major themes in the arguments about women and (their absence from) science. I discuss two of those themes, the one being “meritocracy” with as idea of excellence as transparent, and the other being essentialist and binary notions of gender.

Worldviews Pre-conference Event – War on Knowledge?

This Tuesday, April 16th, I’ll be on a panel at the pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, in Toronto. This should be an interesting event; the other members of the panel are: Tony Burman, Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator will be Rick Salutin.

Communication, not edutainment

I wrote one of my University of Venus posts in response to the idea that undergraduate students seem to be easily bored by many different topics. rather than banning them from engaging with “distracting” technologies in class, perhaps we could try to connect with them more and figure out where the roots of that boredom are buried. Here is the link to the original post from March 3, 2011: Communication, not edutainment.

How do we, as tutorial leaders or professors, deal with the revelation that students find classes or entire subject areas “boring?” And to what extent is it our responsibility to get them “interested?” These were questions that came to mind as I read Itir Toksöz’s recent UVenus post about “academic boredom”. While she was discussing the boredom she experiences in conversation with colleagues, my first thought was that boredom is not just (potentially) a problem for and with academics, but also for students.

I see boredom as something other than a mere lack of interest. I think of it as a stand-in for frustration, which can, in turn, stem from a sense of exclusion from the material, from the discussion, from the class, from understanding the point of it all; ultimately an exclusion from the enjoyment of learning. This can happen when the material is too challenging, or when the student doesn’t really want to be in the class for some reason.

Boredom is sometimes about fear, the fear of failing and looking “stupid” in front of the instructor and one’s peers. In other cases it can also be a symptom that someone is far beyond the discussion and in need of a deeper or a more challenging conversation. All these things can be called “boredom” but often they are more like communicative gaps in need of bridging.

In other words, boredom is often a mask for something else. We need to remove this mask, because of the negative effects of boredom on the learning environment and process. It causes people to “tune out” from what’s happening, and in almost every case it creates or is accompanied by resentment for the teacher/professor and/or for the other students. As a psychological problem, this makes boredom one of the greatest puzzles of teaching, and one of those problems that most demands attention.

It’s even more important to uncover the causes of boredom now that many students have access to wireless Internet and to Blackberries and iPhones, in the classroom. Professors and TAs complain that students are less attentive than ever while in class, because of this attachment to their devices—something I’ve encountered first-hand with my current tutorial group.

I think the attachment to gadgetry comes not from the technology itself, but from the students. In my blog I’ve written about the issue with students using technology to “tune out” during lectures, and they do it in tutorial as well; they’re “present, yet absent”. To understand this behaviour we need to keep in mind that the lure of the online (social) world is reasonable from the students’ perspective. Popular media and established social networks are accessible and entertaining, and provide positive feedback as well as a sense of comfortable familiarity. Learning is hard work, and the academic world is often alienating, difficult, and demanding. It’s all-too-easy to crumple under the feeling of failure or exclusion. Facebook is welcoming and easy to use, while critical theory is not.

The other side of this equation is that in the process of negotiating and overcoming “boredom” there’s a certain point at which I can meet students halfway, as it were—but I can’t go beyond that point. Like everything else in teaching and learning, boredom is a two-way street, and the instructor is the one who needs to maintain the boundary of responsibility. I’m not there merely to provide an appealing performance, which leads to superficial “engagement.” I’m not “edutainment”.

However, I think it’s part of my job when teaching to “open a door” to a topic or theory or set of ideas. I can’t make you walk through that door (horse to water, etc.) but I can surely do my best to make sure you have the right address and a key that fits the lock. And that means using different strategies if the ones I choose don’t seem to be working.

Holding this view about boredom certainly doesn’t mean I’ve solved the problems with student attention in class; I’m reminded of that frequently. It just means I have an approach to dealing with the problem that treats their boredom as something for which there’s mutual responsibility. In an ideal learning environment there must also be mutual respect—but unfortunately mutual “boredom” is easier and often wins the day. My hope is to help cultivate the former by finding ways of unraveling the latter.

Social media – Implications for the university

I’ll be at this conference on social media and the university, in May at York University. I’m presenting with Grace Pollock, Alex Epp, and Danielle Martak, and we’re discussiong the Public Intellectuals Project as a case study of use of social media in universities’ engagement with different publics.

Here is the title of our talk, which is on May 3 at 3:30:
“A case study of social media use: the Public Intellectuals Project at McMaster University.”

Registration for graduate and undergraduate students is free.

For other information, the Public Intellectuals Project Twitter profile is here, and our Facebook page is here.