Bibliography: Bullying, mobbing and workplace harassment in PSE institutions

I’ve compiled a short bibliography of sources about workplace harassment in academia; this is what I had saved in Zotero, and I’m sharing it because there’s a recent University Affairs article on the topic that’s getting a fair bit of attention. I’ve looked into this for dissertation research, so I thought I’d post my sources here. Cheers!

Some links relating to contract faculty

Special Issue: Understanding the New Majority of Non-Tenure-Track Faculty in Higher Education—Demographics, Experiences, and Plans of Action. Adrianna Kezar and Cecile Sam. 2010.
“This monograph provides a portrait of non-tenure-track faculty, describes studies of their experiences, and proposes plans of action. Much of the research, particularly early on, tried to provide a picture and description of this faculty that have been largely invisible for years.”

The University of Stockholm Syndrome. Ian Bogost. August 18, 2010.

An underclass is educating your children. Rob Faunce, Chronicle of Higher Education. September 2, 2010.
“I think we’ve all heard that refrain before, but perhaps it’s time to hear it again, and to think about the conditions of our younger peers as we move on into mythical jobs and mythical tenure.”

Solidarity vs. contingency. Cary Nelson, Inside Higher Ed. September 7, 2010.
“The only true solidarity among current faculty members requires granting tenure to all long-term contingent faculty members. […] The only goal worth fighting for is full justice for all who teach.”

Undocumented and unsung-Growing worldwide dependence on part-time faculty.
Liz Reisberg, Inside Higher Ed. November 8, 2010.
“Among the most interesting were the very large gaps in available data about who is teaching and the remuneration they receive. In most countries national data are collected and compiled by the Ministry of Education, but they are generally incomplete. One consistent pattern in all of the country studies was that there has been a dramatic increase in part-time contracts but with virtually no national data available about their number, profile or remuneration. As a result we are left to guess at what percentage of the teaching faculty is part-time, who they are, and how they are compensated.”

Conditions imposed on part-time adjuncts threaten quality of teaching, researchers say. Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education. November 30, 2010.
“The two Michigan State University researchers who conducted the study […] stressed in an interview this week that they fault the conditions part-time instructors work under, and not the instructors themselves, for their failure to use effective teaching methods more often.”

Whatever happened to tenure? Stephanie Findlay, Maclean’s. January 17, 2010.

Documenting adjuncts’ pay gap. Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed. January 20, 2011.

Loyalty or desperation? Lee Skallerup Bessette, Inside Higher Ed. February 16, 2011.
“I was told upfront that I would never get a full-time job there because my specialty and interests were not a priority. Can I help it if I adapt as mercenary an approach to being an adjunct as they take towards adjuncts? Nothing personal, just business.”

Review of “The Faculty Lounges”. Dan Berrett, Inside Higher Ed. June 8, 2011.

Taking the leap. Janet G. Casey, Inside Higher Ed. November 21, 2011.

The time is now: Report from the New Faculty Majority Summit. Lee Bessette, Inside Higher Ed. January 30, 2012.

A call to action. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. January 30, 2012.

The ‘new majority’ of contingent faculty try to get heard. Léo Charbonneau, University Affairs. February 14, 2012.

Rhetoric and Composition: Academic capitalism and cheap teachers. Ann Larson, Education, Class, Politics. March 3, 2012.

The adjunct problem is every professor’s problem. Jonathan Rees. March 20, 2012.

Data storm. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. April 2, 2012.

The disposable professor crisis. s.e. smith, Salon (originally at Alternet). April 4, 2012.

Just not that into you. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. June 10, 2012.

Original sin: What responsibility do tenure track faculty have for the rise of adjuncts? Jonathan Rees. June 18, 2012.

The adjunct scramble. Kaustuv Basu, Inside Higher Ed. August 23, 2012.

Working for change in higher education: The abysmal state of adjunct teacher pay. Jeffrey Nall, Truthout. November 25, 2012.

Making the case for adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 9, 2013.

Sessionals, up close. Moira MacDonald, University Affairs. January 9, 2013.

Chart of the Day: Overwhelmingly female adjunct staff face low pay and few employment protections Kay Steiger. January 9, 2013.

Quit! L.S. Powers, The Adjunct Project. January 28, 2013.

Why are so many academics on short-term contracts for years? Anna Fazackerley, Guardian. February 4, 2013.

The academic graveyard shift. Andrew Lounder, Education Policy. February 11, 2013.

Profiles: The faces of precarious work. Laura Kane, Toronto Star. February 23, 2013.

Academia’s indentured servants. Sarah Kendzior, Al Jazeera. April 11, 2013.

Tackling the cap. Carl Straumsheim, Inside Higher Ed. April 24, 2013.

When tenure-track faculty take on the problem of adjunctification. Jennifer Ruth, Remaking the University. May 25, 2013.

The pink collar workforce of academia. Kay Steiger, The Nation. July 11, 2013.

Who teaches university students? Contract teachers. Craig McFarlane, The Globe & Mail. June 21, 2013.

Don’t cheer the rise of the adjunct. Jonathan Marks, Minding the Campus. September 16, 2013.

Zero hours in universities: ‘You never know if it’ll be enough to survive’. Harriet Swain, Guardian. September 16, 2013.

Death of an adjunct. Daniel Kovalik, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. September 18, 2013.

Zero opportunity employers. Sarah Kendzior, Aljazeera. September 23, 2013.

Sifting through the scant data on contingent faculty. Léo Charbonneau, Margin Notes. October 29, 2013.

What does the national data say about adjuncts? Matt Bruenig. December 4, 2013.

Adjuncts and theories of politics. Fredrick deBoer. January 3, 2014.

Thinking beyond ourselves: The “crisis” in academic work. Melonie Fullick, Speculative Diction. January 10, 2014.

False statistic: 76 percent of American faculty are adjuncts. Matt Bruenig. January 14, 2014.
“The article says tenured or tenure-track professors make up 24 percent of the workforce. The remainder are not all adjuncts. They are a mix of adjuncts and all these other kinds of employees who the Times distinguishes from adjuncts.” [Read the comments on this one.]

The new old labor crisis. Tressie McMillan Cottom, Slate. January 24, 2014.
“Think being an adjunct professor is hard? Try being a black adjunct professor…to be clear, there’s been a labor crisis in higher ed for a long time. It just hasn’t always been a crisis for everyone in higher ed.”

The Just-In-Time Professor. House Committee on Education and the Workforce
Democratic Staff. January, 2014.

An ‘alarming snapshot’ of adjunct labor. Sydni Dunn, Chronicle Vitae. January 24, 2014.

Congress takes note. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 24, 2014.

Invisible hands: Making academic labour visible. Christina Turner, rabble. January 24, 2014.
“…while [in Canada] the average salary for a full professor in 2010-11 was $138,853, contract instructors make $4000-8000 per course and have no benefits or job security and little academic freedom.”

The income gap between tenure faculty & adjunct contract professors in Canadian universities. The Current, CBC. January 27, 2014.

Representing the new faculty majority. Stephen Slemon, ACCUTE. January 30, 2014.
“We still don’t have competent statistics about contract academic faculty numbers within the Canadian postsecondary industry, a fact that speaks volumes in support of the hypothesis that ignorance is motivated. We do know that the numbers are growing.”

Sessionals. Alex Usher, One Thought Blog. March 6, 2014.
“Basically, no one “decided” to create an academic underclass of sessionals. Rather, they are an emergent property of a system where universities mostly earn money for teaching, but spend a hell of a lot of it doing research.”

Remaking the Public U’s professoriate. Jennifer Ruth, Remaking the Public University. April 2, 2015.

The new normal. Kate Bowles, CASA. April 12, 2015.

The adjunct revolt: How poor professors are fighting back. Elizabeth Segran, The Atlantic. April 28, 2014.

Slavery should never be a metaphor. Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Adjunct Project. May 5, 2014.

Casualisation, (dis)ability and academia. Carla Barrett and Natalie Osborne, CASA. May 15, 2014.

I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all. Amanda Taub, Vox. June 5, 2015.

The teaching class. Rachel Riederer, Guernica. June 16, 2014.

The plight of hidden academics. The Agenda, TVO. June 24, 2014.

Sessional instructors: what we know so far. Léo Charbonneau, Margin Notes. July 16, 2014.

The opposite of good fortune is bad fortune. Ian Bogost. July 20, 2014.

New move in union-busting? Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. August 5, 2015.
“…union members are saying [Duquesne University] has hit an unprecedented low in the fight, threatening in a legal brief to fire adjuncts who participated in the unionization process.”

I used to be a good teacher. Alice Umber, Chronicle Vitae. August 20, 2014.

Is that whining adjunct someone we want teaching our young? Catherine Stukel, Chronicle of Higher Education. August 25, 2014.

Offensive letter justifies oppressive system that hurts both faculty and students. Marc Bousquet, Chronicle of Higher Education. August 29, 2014.

‘Traditional’ academics are an endangered species. Geoff Maslen, University World News. September 9, 2014.

Calling it out. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. September 10, 2014.

No country for old adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. September 24, 2014.

First Amendment rights for adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. October 31, 2014.

Your waitress, your professor. Brittany Bronson, The New York Times. December 18, 2014.

Adjunct to tenure track. Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed. January 12, 2015.

A day without adjuncts. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. January 27, 2015.

The woman behind #NAWD. Colleen Flaherty, Inside Higher Ed. March 5, 2015.

Academia has to stop eating its young. Showey Yazdanian, The Globe and Mail. March 5, 2015.

More contract work in post-secondary education – a former bastion of secure work. Mary Wiens, CBC. March 5, 2015.

Academia’s 1 percent. Sarah Kendzior, Chronicle Vitae. March 6, 2015.
“No amount of publishing, teaching excellence, or grants can compensate for an affiliation that is less than favorable in the eyes of a search committee. The fate of aspiring professors is sealed not with job applications but with graduate-school applications.”

Crisis in academic labour puts Canadian universities on the brink. Erin Wunker, rabble. March 10, 2015.

Past is prologue when it comes to contract faculty. Melonie Fullick, Speculative Diction. March 11, 2015.

At universities, who is going the teaching? Editorial, The Globe and Mail. March 13 2015.
“Those superstar professors and public intellectuals who bring High-Ranked U. its global stature? They’re preoccupied with producing research, the university’s reward for greatness, and increasingly the university’s measure of greatness.”

What next for #NAWD? Lee Kottner, University of Venus. March 23, 2015.

O adjunct, my adjunct! Carmen Maria Machado, The New Yorker. March 25, 2015.

“Most students couldn’t afford to live on what we make”: The grim reality of MUN’s contractual faculty. Laura Howells, The Muse. April 2, 2015.

The professor divide at American universities and How to Fix It — The Case for a teaching-intensive tenure track. Jennifer Ruth, LSE Impact Blog. April 10, 2015.
“In our forthcoming book, The Humanities, Higher Education and Academic Freedom: Three Necessary Arguments, Michael Bérubé and I propose that universities and colleges put the professoriate back together again by building teaching-intensive tenure tracks.”

The cost of an adjunct. Laura McKenna, The Atlantic. May 26, 2015.

Zero-hours contracts and precarious academic work in the UK. Jonathan White, Academic Matters. Spring—Summer 2015.
“In the UK there are tens of thousands of people working on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of work from semester to semester. Many of them are students, recruited into doctoral programmes by universities hungry for their course fees and then used to teach fee-paying undergraduates.”

Gratis. Kate Bowles, Music for Deckchairs. June 10, 2015.

I am an adjunct professor who teaches five classes. I earn less than a pet-sitter. Lee Hall, Guardian. June 22, 2015.

Contingent faculty aren’t working in the minors. John Warner, Just Visiting. July 9, 2015.

Employment (in)security and shame: Working hard on soft money. The Smart Casual. July 15, 2015.

Landmark court case win by NTEU, voids Swinburne anti-worker EBA. Josh Cullinan. National Tertiary Education Union. July 17, 2015.

Solidarity to Save Jobs. Jacqueline Thomsen, Inside Higher Ed. August 6, 2015.

The economic inequality in academia. Richard Goldin, Counterpunch. August 13, 2015.
“The reinforcement of professorial class privilege begins with the hiring process for the few available tenure-track jobs. Excellence in teaching, without academic publications, will rarely qualify an applicant for a university level tenure-track position.”

‘Sessional’ Instructors: Return of the Penniless Scholar? Katie Hyslop, The Tyee. September 21, 2015.

In Search of Solidarity for Sessional Instructors. John-Henry Harter, Briarpatch. September 2, 2015.

Fed up with precarious work, academic staff speak out for fair and full employment. CAUT. October 7, 2015.

Silence on campus: Contingent work and free speech. Alex Press and StudentNation, The Nation. February 17, 2016.

The uses of care

(Here is a link to the original post published on December 16, 2015 at University Affairs: The uses of care.)

Recently on Twitter and Facebook I’ve seen more articles on taking care of ourselves and the practice of “self-care” in academe, which makes a lot of sense at a time of year when (in the Northern hemisphere) the combination of colder weather, anxiety and exhaustion at the end of the semester—and the potential added stress of the holiday season—means that many academics and students are feeling worn out and in need of a break.

But when I see these articles and blog posts that take up the concept of self-care, I can’t help also thinking of (and comparing to) the articles from business publications that frame some of the same activities in a completely different way: from the viewpoint of employers, where our wellness is too easily seen as valuable only if it leads to improved productivity and an increase to the bottom line. These latter “advice” pieces are also regularly shared on social media.

In this post I’m going to look at the issue of how those very different “framings” overlap and intersect: what’s the connection between self-care and the “care work” that is done every day, often invisibly and without compensation? How does all this care work happen in the context of managerial governance with its imperative to productivity—and in a competitive academic culture? Is it also possible that “wellness” and related practices can work more in the interests of employers than employees, transferring the responsibility to change problems in the workplace and its culture?

For a start, care is work, as an entire body of academic research can attest; this work is also gendered, disproportionately performed by women. Women are already engaging in this “extra” work both in professional settings and in their personal lives, because it’s what’s expected of them. Tina Barnes-Powell and Gayle Letherby write that “[b]oth in the wider community and in the communities of higher education (whether provided by women or men), ‘care’ is feminized and undervalued.” Care work is often invisible and informal work, present and necessary but largely unacknowledged in everyday life.

For scholars who hail from groups traditionally marginalized in academe, (mutual) care is even more crucial, since working in the institution so often feels more like trying to work against it—both for themselves and for their students. That accumulation of daily experiences is a process of sedimentation, a psychological, emotional and physical burden generated by the structural gaps those scholars are expected to work to fill in themselves. If “diversity work” is also care work—work that can’t be done by committee or accomplished with a policy—it is beyond the logic of institutional rewards.

The concept self care used in this context has its roots in Black feminist thought, exemplified in the well-known words of Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” As Sara Ahmed explains in her post on “Self-care as warfare”, this is radical because it involves caring for one’s self when the (social) world daily denies one access to that care. The elements of race and gender are key to the analysis, because of the performance of care for others that is expected of Black women, the discrimination they face, and the low value placed on their lives and work: “some of us, Audre Lorde notes were never meant to survive.”

Lorde’s work shows “how structural inequalities are deflected by being made the responsibility of individuals,” and we can see this pattern also in current discourses about workplace stress and mental health. For example, I wrote “Beyond puppies and yoga” to critique the tendency to individualize the “solutions” for the effects of systemic changes to (and problems with) how we live and work, including in academic institutions; in another previous post I discussed how this individualistic framing is reflected and reinforced in media coverage and advice columns about mental health. No amount of tending to the self can adequately compensate for the broader lack of access to mental health resources for those who need them, or indeed for the effects of discrimination and economic inequality on people’s health.

In the media articles we see now, this care for the self is re-articulated through the overarching, individualized logic of productivity. Examples show that a certain level of stress and anxiety is deemed to be fair and “natural,” but that we can manage it ourselves by taking control with advice and adopting appropriate practices. Naps, we’re told, are a good thing because they increase productivity (and sleeping close to your work has never been easier!)—while the debate about how much sleep we “need” rages on, because sleep, of course, is not (in itself) productive. Happiness itself can be calculated as another part of the equation that leads to more productivity. The Onion’s parody of the advice of “wellness experts” only works because we’re so familiar with the content and tone of said advice and the context in which it’s offered.

A useful example of this is the concept of “mindfulness” that is now regularly discussed in business magazines and mainstream media advice columns, having developed as a trend after gaining popularity in Silicon Valley. Zoë Krupka writes that “pasteurised versions of the ancient practice of mindfulness are now big business,” but they are about fixing “not so much what ails you, but what is ailing those who depend on you.” Using mindfulness as a tool to manage stress and increase innovation and productivity doesn’t get at the underlying problem, which is where the stress is coming from, why the work is so stressful, and how much stress people have to deal with (a few more critiques, if you’re interested, hereherehere and here). The strategic application of mindfulness is not a way to address overwork and unhealthy conditions in the workplace, and it places the responsibility for sustaining those conditions directly onto individuals.

These examples show how something that has a great deal of potential to be positive, can be reinterpreted through the lens of economization and enfolded in its logic. Mindfulness really does have benefits; and sleep, healthy food, exercise, and so on, are things we need in order to be healthy, things that improve our lives. It’s more the conflation of our lives and health with the needs of our employers that is potentially a problem, one that’s particularly prevalent in academe, but certainly not only there.

Robin James gets to the heart of this problem by making a distinction between “self-care as surplus-value producing work” or “resilience,” and “guerrilla self-care” (I recommend you read her post on this). The former, argues James, “is not about personal healing: resilient self-care is just another, upgraded way of instrumentalizing the same people” in the service of the same structures that caused them stress in the first place. It’s not “about cultivating what you need, it’s about adapting to dominant notions of success.” Guerrilla self-care, like the “subversive self-care” discussed here by Shanesha Brooks-Tatum, is a means of pushing back against destructive systemic problems as well as alleviating their effects on us.

This is why it’s important that we acknowledge care as work, which is a fundamental element of relationships and organizations, yet exists outside the “value” that matters in a market. The issue with care work, for the self and others, is not that it needs to be done at all but more that some people are expected to do it or compelled to do it—while others can take it for granted that the work will be done for them (by the institution or by other people in their lives). This is also why each of us needs to think through our unique position in relation to these institutions, their histories and their current priorities. Each of us will be able to do different things to contribute in this context. For example, learning to “say no” to extra uncompensated work is a lauded practice, but not everyone is in a position to do this without negative consequences. Those who can, need to make sure the work they say “no” to is not simply downloaded onto others who can’t refuse.

In this context it is radical to resist working on ourselves for the sole purpose of producing value for a “greedy institution,” in a competitive market for stable paid employment. Can care work become radical, resistant, in a system that attributes no value to it yet cannot function without it? Instead of (ironically) individualizing our problems and expecting people to deal with them through technologies of self-management, we need to acknowledge — and keep re-acknowledging — structural problems including those that create stressful, unhealthy workplaces. We also need to de-individualize our means of response so that the burden does not fall, as it has done and still does, on those already most affected by systemic injustices; otherwise we’re merely re-inscribing the things we claim to critique, both to our own detriment and to other people’s.

UBC, WTF?

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the recent events at UBC, it’s that silence can say more than words, whether you’re withholding information or telling someone else to keep quiet. That probably sounds obvious, but the university’s announcement of Arvind Gupta’s resignation—and its handling of the events that followed—reflect some problematic assumptions about who should be able to speak, when, and what should be said.

What was it that triggered UBC’s current public crisis? Gupta’s July 31 departure was announced publicly on August 7 in classic “Friday Afternoon News Dump” fashion: UBC published a news release, which was tweeted shortly after 4pm EDT. In a news release where roughly 50% of the text was devoted to celebratory prose about the incoming interim president (Dr. Martha Piper), UBC gave no explanation for Gupta’s resignation except that he had “decided he can best contribute to the university and lead Canada’s innovation agenda by resuming his academic career and leadership roles in the business and research community”.

Additionally, a Globe and Mail article was published around 5pm, containing interview quotes from UBC Board of Governors (BoG) Chair John Montalbano. Rather than clarifying the situation, this article only exacerbated the impression that the university hoped to bury the issue as quickly as possible. Gupta’s quoted comments—restricted by the NDAs that had been signed—were equally unhelpful, referring back to the university’s statement. Montalbano appears completely unfazed, stating “I don’t believe we will miss a beat”.

That article highlights what’s been so provocative about the UBC case, i.e. the “cone of silence” approach taken by the university’s administration, even as the BoG Chair seemed to have been saying quite a lot (more on this below). While there was a press release, it was immediately treated as an incomplete account because in the context of Gupta’s five-year term ending abruptly after only one year, the information UBC provided wasn’t “enough”. An (apparently) partial message suggests that there’s something to hide. This much should have been obvious at the outset, but UBC’s communication has remained unbendingly evasive; even their Twitter feed contained nothing helpful when I checked, beyond a single tweet with their press release on August 7.

Because of this suddenness and silence, public speculation began immediately. Why was Gupta resigning after only a year? Was it a health problem or some other personal issue? Was it a disagreement with the Board or opposition from senior administrators (the remaining ones, anyway)? The pressure of financial challenges? Gupta had no real experience in administration; was the position simply too much for him—or was he perhaps not living up to his promise? If it was the latter, one year seems like a pretty short trial period. If this was a “smouldering crisis”, it didn’t take long for the flames to be fanned—and it certainly wasn’t visible or predictable to everyone in the institution. UBC Faculty Association President Mark MacLean wrote in a public letter on August 10: “this news came as a complete surprise to me, and I have spent the weekend trying to make sense of it”.

UBC faculty members were among those who produced blog posts and columns offering their own interpretations of events (examples from the past few weeks include E. Wayne Ross, Nassif Ghoussoub, Stephen Petrina, Christopher Rea, James Tansey, and Charles Menzies). Which brings us to the second thread in this story. On August 9, Dr. Jennifer Berdahl—a full professor who holds the Montalbano Professorship in Leadership Studies: Women and Diversity in the Sauder School of Business—published a blog post about Gupta’s resignation, in which she described her “personal observations and experiences” with him. She placed these observations squarely in the context of her research on diversity and workplace dynamics.

Of Gupta, Berdahl wrote that “he exhibited all the traits of a humble leader: one who listens to arguments and weighs their logic and information, instead of displaying and rewarding bravado as a proxy for competence”; and that “UBC either failed in selecting, or in supporting, him as president” (a position she wasn’t alone in holding). More controversially, she described the culture of leadership at UBC as a “masculinity contest” in which Gupta did not fit, and where his strengths were not sufficiently valued.

Berdahl’s post soon came to the attention of BoG Chair John Montalbano, who went so far as to express disapproval to her in a phone call the day after it was published. Montalbano, who is CEO of RBC Global Asset Management, also happens to be the donor whose funds support Berdahl’s professorship. According to Berdahl, he chastised her for bringing negative attention to the Sauder School and UBC, describing her words as “hurtful” and “unfair to the Board” and repeatedly mentioning both the RBC funding and related conversations that he was having with other administrators. This was followed by further communications from Berdahl’s Division Chair; the Associate Dean of Faculty; and perhaps most ironically, the Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity. Their message was clear: the blog post had done “reputational damage” and was upsetting to a powerful donor who was also Chair of the Board.

Berdahl’s account of these experiences, which she posted on August 16, brought a whole new dimension to the UBC situation. What she described was an unequivocal breach of academic protocol, and it generated outrage far beyond UBC and beyond the group that had initially been concerned about Gupta’s resignation. It also changed the focus of the story and helped to further position Montalbano as the chief villain in it. Even those who were more sanguine about Gupta’s departure and/or had viewed Berdahl’s earlier post with skepticism, were happy to leap to her defence over an issue of academic freedom.

Berdahl’s experience has raised again a key issue with regards to the definition of academic freedom: should professors’ commentary be limited to their “area of expertise” or to what is required for teaching and research, or should it be applicable to more general matters of university governance? Even for those who think that comment should be limited to a faculty member’s research area, Berdahl’s position is unique this regard; her research is in fact about organizational dynamics. Surely then she is qualified to speak critically about the dynamics in her own institution, based on what she’s observed first-hand? The post states fairly clearly that Berdahl is speaking from her own experience and framing this through the theoretical lens that she uses in her work. This approach was of course criticised for a variety of reasons, but being critical of what someone said is not the same as telling them to stop saying it.

I wasn’t hugely surprised at the points Berdahl was making, because the gender issue here isn’t a new one. It’s a point I’ve seen raised, usually off-the-record (and not by women), during the course of my dissertation research. It’s something that Julie Cafley of Canada’s Public Policy Forum, who wrote a dissertation on Canadian universities’ presidential departures, is also pointing out as significant. Another factor to keep in mind are the gender dynamics of public expertise, which favour a particular performance of masculinity (one that intersects with perceptions relating to race). So is there not a connection between these issues and the points raised in Berdahl’s blog post on this topic? Why were so many people—university faculty included—so quick to dismiss the legitimacy and relevance of what she said, along with her right to say it?

For some people, the problem was the quality of the writing and the analysis in the post; it wasn’t written either with the rigour of an academic article, or the clarity of a post intended for a broad audience. Others disagreed with the conclusions indicated therein, which were interpreted as accusations of racism and sexism. But if the question here is whether the post was covered by UBC’s existing policies on academic freedom, to me it looks like the answer is “yes”.

That’s why, whatever Berdahl’s analysis pointed to, in his reaction to it Montalbano stepped over a line that would have been clear to anyone familiar with academic work and the policies that govern it. The outcome was that after denying the allegations, Montalbano still faced public pressure to step down as BoG Chair—which he did, on August 25. Former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith will “undertake [a] fact-finding process” on the incident, to culminate in a report by October 7. Meanwhile, UBC has provided no further information about Gupta’s resignation, which clearly hasn’t stopped major media outlets from publishing further commentary.

I can see at least two stories being told here: one of them is about accountability, and the other is about academic freedom. They’re both stories about the ethics of (crisis) communication—on the one hand, a major, sudden change occurred and not enough information was provided. On the other hand, when a faculty member wrote a public interpretation of that change, she was shushed by the BoG Chair and others.

Accountability is significantly about communicating with those who have an interest in the outcome of a situation. Even when there’s information that for legal reasons can’t be disclosed, there are ways of handling it appropriately. The rampant speculation (and subsequent calls for transparency) should have been entirely predictable given that UBC is one of the country’s top universities, that there was widespread publicity about Gupta’s appointment (and presidential searches cost money), and that the resignation happened after just 13 months. Those gaps left between expectations and actual communication were filled in with assumptions generated by context: that something very bad must have happened, since no-one could talk about it. Would things have turned out differently had the university taken a different path at the outset, or are the rules governing such situations inherently troubling for public academic institutions?

Academic freedom, too, is a communication issue as well as one of intellectual integrity; there’s a reason it’s so often conflated with “freedom of speech”. It’s what professors are saying—what they’re communicating and to whom—that’s often framed as a (political) problem, as was the case with Jennifer Berdahl’s blog posts. This reaction to her words only confirmed the initial impression that something worth hiding must have happened, since a faculty member was being pressured to tone it down.

What will happen next at UBC? In an August 9 post at Inside Higher Ed, Kris Olds wrote that “a crisis is a wonderful teaching and learning moment. Use it, and be prepared to see it used, for this is what a university is all about”. Only time will tell whether the lessons from this crisis will be put to good use. UBC will need to tend to reputational damage, but even more so, the damage done to internal trust within the university. One sign of how the university plans to proceed is provided in Martha Piper’s op-ed in the Vancouver Sun. Piper’s piece, whether you agree with her perspective or not, is probably better written than anything else produced by UBC representatives during the past month; but it’s clear that the university is trying to maintain the same upbeat tone that failed so badly at the outset. If (as some have argued) there’s a deeper, ongoing problem with the culture of governance at UBC, it’s going to take not only time but also some honesty to address it appropriately.

Degrees of certainty

I wrote this post about the way the “skills gap” discussion is informed by the politics of funding and the increased amount of risk that universities are expected to manage. Here is the original post from March 27, 2013: Degrees of Certainty.

recent post by David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto, has been quite popular with academics and has generated a lot of commentary. Naylor makes the argument that Canadian higher education is dogged by “zombie ideas”, and he describes two of them: the first is that universities “ought to produce more job-ready, skills-focused graduates [and] focus on preparing people for careers”. The second is the idea that research driven by short-term application or commercialization, should be prioritized by universities because it provides a better return on governments’ funding investments.

I focus here on the first point, since in the past few weeks, in the run-up to the federal budget on March 21st, there has been a great deal of coverage of the alleged “skills gap” in in the Canadian workforce. Others have already done the work of summarising this issue, but as a quick recap, the argument goes something like this: business leaders and employers in Canada complain (to the government) that they cannot fill positions because candidates lack the skills. Yet Canada produces more post-secondary graduates than ever, and those grads are having trouble finding employment that matches their qualifications. So why is there an apparent “mismatch” between the education students receive, and the skills employers are demanding?

I don’t have anything to add to the debate about what is needed more–“narrow” skills such as those available from colleges or apprenticeships, or the “broader” education that universities argue they provide–because I don’t have the expertise to make an assessment within those parameters. However, I find the discussion interesting in terms of its context, including who is doing the arguing, and why.

For example, while the “skills gap” is assumed as a dramatic fact by Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who “recently called the labour and skills shortage “the most significant socio-economic challenge ahead of us in Canada”” (CBC)–other experts, including Naylor, disagree that a skills gap exists at all. University graduates, they argue, are still making better money than those without degrees; and most of them (eventually) find jobs that draw on their skills–so why reduce the number of enrolments? Alex Usher of HESA has been generating a lot of commentary for this side of the argument as well; in the comments of one of his posts, his points are disputed by James Knight of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.

Clearly the debate is more complex than “BAs vs. welders”, but this is the rhetoric being reproduced in numerous mainstream media articles. The average reader could be forgiven for finding this issue hard to untangle, based on the radically different accounts provided by media and policy pundits. Yet all this is discussed with much urgency, because post-secondary education is now being understood as a stopgap for everything the economy seems to lack–and economic competitiveness is imperative.

The politics of urgent “responsive” decision-making lie behind many of the arguments being brought forth. The skills gap, should it exist, has its political uses; agreeing that a thing exists means having to find ways of dealing with it somehow. In this case, a restructuring of university education is one solution on offer, including steering students away from the corruption of the arts and humanities and towards more suitable areas where demonstrable “skills” are in demand. Those doing the arguing have the means and “voice” to define the problem in a particular way; they can intervene in that debate and someone will listen. Each player has stakes in this game, too–the colleges plump for skills and job training over research investments, while the universities, and their advocates, claim a “broad” education is more appropriate; employers want graduates they don’t have to train, so the concern is with graduates being job-ready (for jobs that may not even exist yet).

Is this a kind of moral panic for Canadian higher education? That’s an important question, because such tactics are used to create a climate in which particular policy changes are favoured over others, both by politicians and policy-makers and by voters.

I think at the heart of the debate there are the problems of risk, certainty, and value (for money). Canadians have more of a “stake” in what universities do–often through directly paying ever increasing amounts of money for it–and so they care more about what universities are for. Governments have more of a claim now too, because of the idea that universities are magic factories where students enter undeveloped and emerge brimming with human capital (but it must be capital of the right kind).

The more we experience instability, the more we desire certainty–or at least some form of guarantee that if things go off the rails, we have other options. Yet there is no certainty about economic (or other) outcomes either from education or from non-commercial, “basic” research. Education and research give us no way to “go back”, either. For those trying to get a good start in life, there’s no tuition refund if we fail our classes or find the job market unfriendly at the end of the degree. We can’t wind back time and have another try. So the question becomes: what will guarantee our ability to cope with the future? A long-term focus on broad learning, which can (it is argued) help us to adapt to the changing structure of careers? Or a short-term focus, on skills designed to prepare students for specific, immediate positions?

This is why Naylor makes the argument that “the best antidote to unemployment–and the best insurance against recession-triggered unemployment–is still a university degree” (added emphasis). The word “insurance” speaks to the risk each person internalises in the current economy. Such risk has many effects, and one of them is heightened fear of the unknown: with so few resources to go around, will we get a “return” on what we invested, will our sacrifices “pay off”? What will happen if they don’t? As Paul Wells has pointed out, university advocacy organizations such as AUCC have pushed for universities to be recognised as providing economic benefits–since this is a logic that validates requests for further government funding. Yet it means universities are held captive by their own argument, since funding comes with the expectation of economic returns for the government. What if they cannot deliver on this promise?

The skills/employment “gap” is being blamed for a lack of national economic competitiveness; and it is a parallel to the ongoing “innovation problem” that Canada has in the research sector. But it’s the outcome, not the process, that’s really driving this debate. Never before have we been compelled to pay so much attention to the purpose and results of university education, and now that it seems to matter so much, we’re finding that “what universities should be doing”–or even what they already do–can’t be pinned down so easily; it can’t be mapped so cleanly onto a specific, measurable result. This is partly because what we now demand of universities is certainty, where serendipity used to be enough.

MOOCs, access, & privileged assumptions

In this blog post I compare the rhetoric of accessibility that occurs in arguments for MOOCs, to the kinds of examples chosen to represent this – in the context of an existing literature on higher education accessibility. Here is the original post, from June 19, 2013: MOOCs, access, & privileged assumptions.

Later this week I’m going to be on a panel about the inescapable subject of MOOCs, so for this post I’m thinking through an issue I’ve been noticing since I last wrote a big post on this topic, which was during the peak of the media mayhem in July 2012. For many of those researching higher education, even those who’ve been doing it for just a few years as I have, the ongoing hyperbolic MOOC debate that has hijacked the higher ed news has been quite frustrating. Of course, there is plenty of bluster on both sides of this debate. But it’s really troubling to see many perfectly legitimate criticisms reduced to straw-person arguments about “faculty fear” (“those teachers just don’t want to lose their jobs!”), or about how those who are skeptical must be “against accessibility”.

So I would like to address this issue of “accessibility” that has come up repeatedly in MOOC debates. In articles that evangelise about the benefits of MOOCs, it’s often pointed out that there there is a huge (global) demand for higher education and that many eligible students are losing out due to lack of resources or to their location in “third world” countries. Even in richer nations, student loan debt has become a more significant concern over time, alongside rising tuition; and postsecondary education is becoming more of a financial burden for those who can least afford it. All this has happened in a context where the economy has changed significantly over a period of about 30 years. Socioeconomic mobility has been stymied (including for those with education), middle-class jobs are being fragmented and technologised, and young people are finding it more and more difficult to get a foot in the door. This is the “perfect storm” often referenced in arguments for the “urgency” of turning to MOOCs as a solution.

Lest you should think I am blowing proponents’ claims out of proportion, I’ll provide a few examples. Take a look at this recent article in the Guardian UK, by Anant Agarwal of MIT, President of edX. Agarwal claims that MOOCs “make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind” (note the ableist language – and the fact that he left disability off the list). Moving on, in this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed, Mary Manjikian argues that MOOCs (and other forms of online learning) “threaten to set [the existing] social hierarchy on its head” and that we should “embrace the blurring of boundaries taking place, to make room for a more-equitable society”, which can be achieved through the dis-placement of elitist place-based education. And lastly, I point you to an article written by a MOOC user who epitomises the claims to worldwide accessibility that Agarwal so keenly puts forward: Muhammad Shaheer Niazi of Pakistan, who, with his sister, has taken numerous MOOCs and writes enthusiastically about the benefits of online learning.

I think these arguments beg the question – if MOOCs provide “access”, who, then, has access to MOOCs? What is required of the user, to get the most out of these online resources? To start, you’ll need a regular, reliable Internet connection and decent computer equipment, which are of course not free. Assuming you have the right tech, you’ll also have to be comfortable with being tracked and monitored, given that surveillance is required to “prove” that a particular student did the work (there is much potential for cheating and plagiarism). There are also “analytics” being applied to your online activities, so you need to be on board with participating in a grand experiment where the assumption is that online behaviour shows how learning happens. In these “enclosed” MOOCs, there will be no private, “safe” spaces for learning.

And learning itself must fit the parameters of what is on offer – so the kind of “personalization” often touted is a rather limited one. You’ll be fine if you learn well or best at a computer, and if you don’t have any learning (or other) disabilities that require supports. The few demographics available also suggest that thus far, MOOC users are more likely to be male, white, to have previous postsecondary education, and (judging by course offerings) to be speakers of English, even while the actual pass rates for the courses are still proportionally very low. In terms of the actual needs of the majority of students, we should consider whether all this is really about privileged autodidacts projecting their ideal of education onto everyone else.

Questioning the quantification of assessment, the level of access, the cost of tuition, the endless search for “economies of scale”, and the funding troubles faced by public higher education, must happen if we are to find solutions to those problems. Yet plenty of people have been questioning these trends for a long time, and somehow the research they’ve produced doesn’t have the same appeal. Pro-MOOC critiques of the current system never seem to reference the existing literature about (for example) neoliberalism and the economization of education policy, increased privatization (from tuition fees to corporate influence on research), marketization and commercialization, and the unbundling and outsourcing of faculty work. Perhaps that’s because MOOCs would mostly serve to exacerbate those trends.

What then is the function of MOOCs in terms of “access”? It isn’t about extending real opportunities, because we live in a society and economy where opportunities are unequally distributed and even (online) education cannot “fix” this structural problem, which is deepening by the day; finding a solution will be a complex and difficult task. It isn’t about ensuring the students get higher “quality” of teaching, unless you truly do believe that only professors at elite universities have something to offer, and that all other faculty are somehow a sub-par version modelled on that template. Some have argued that MOOCs can reduce tuition costs for students, but surely there’s only so long a business can exist without making a profit, and the “product” clearly isn’t the same. The ongoing efforts to link MOOCs to the prestige of existing universities through accreditation deals are unlikely to leave these courses “cost-free”, and the hundreds of hours of work it takes to create one MOOC can’t go uncompensated.

Perhaps MOOCs in their revisionist, start-up incarnation are partly about projecting the possibility that even the most downtrodden can still do something to get ahead, at a time when the old path to mobility through hard work and (expensive) education seems less effective than ever. What could be better than more education, for “free”? In this sense, MOOCs really do help to “train” workers for the new economy, since they’re teaching us to govern ourselves, to be autonomous and flexible learners in an economy where businesses can simply refuse to provide on-the-job-training, instead holding out for the perfect custom candidate (while keeping wages low). This is framed not as a problem with business – or even with the long-term changes to the economy in general – but as a failure of education. Meanwhile, we’re encouraged to believe that we can mitigate personal risk by investing in ourselves, and if we don’t “get ahead” that way then it’s about personal responsibility (not systemic problems). If MOOCs “level the playing field” then no-one can complain when they’re left out of the game.

Who is most desperate for these possibilities? Maybe those folks will be the ones using MOOCs. But will the possibilities materialise into something real, for those who need it most, and not just for the few example “learners” who are invoked in MOOC-boosting articles and speeches? Are most current users there because they need to be or because they have no other option? Would massification through MOOCs be more effective that any of the other forms of educational massification that we have seen over the past 200 years – and if so, why? In what way will the new tokens of achievement be any better than a university degree at present, and will they translate concretely into opportunities for the least privileged? After all, isn’t that what “access” is about?

A deeper understanding of context is relevant to every argument being deployed. To return to Muhammad Shaheer Niazi, it’s clear that he actually exemplifies why we cannot make sweeping generalizations about students based on their location. Niazi describes how he had “access” to a supportive and education-oriented family; to “a very good school in Pakistan”; and to computers and books in his home. As Kate Bowles and Tressie McMillan Cottom have both pointed out, there are many families in the United States who wouldn’t be able to provide this kind of environment, and yet “Pakistan” is used frequently as a signifier of poverty, inaccessibility, and general disadvantage. Niazi’s piece shows us he is far from desperate – he is in fact part of the small international group of gifted and well-resourced students that universities most desire to recruit.

Because of the claims being made about disrupting hierarchies and helping the underprivileged, the MOOC trend calls on us to ask ethical questions. Questions about control, resources, and agendas; questions about who is excluded and who is included in this “new” landscape. Questions about how the story of this “phenomenon” is being re-written and re-shaped to reflect particular priorities. We’re seeing perverse exploitation of arguments about access, when the “solution” proposed involves breaking down the university into commodifiable, out-sourced units and reinforcing (or even exacerbating) existing institutional and social hierarchies. In the current political/economic landscape, where there are so many problems that seem intractable, the apparent concreteness of the MOOC “solution” is part of its appeal and also part of why uptake at traditional universities has been so rapid and widespread. But MOOCs are an answer that can only be posited if we construct the question in the right way.

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 MendeleyDiigoAcademia.edu 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.