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.

Lazy higher ed journalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Technology will save higher education. Or…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Universities are inefficient…

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

9. It’s all the fault of the faculty.

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

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

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

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

Cracking the code for employment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PhD education and mental health: A follow-up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perishable goods – Universities and the measurement of educational quality

In this blog post I responded to an article in the Globe & Mail, regarding the splitting of funding for teaching and research in universities. My piece refers to the lack of adequate measures for teaching “quality” and student learning, and how this makes it impractical to attempt to link government funding to those factors, as well as the trouble with assessing “outcomes” of education in the short-term. Here is a  link to the original post, from October 11 2011: Perishable goods.

Today’s post is a response to the Globe and Mail’s October 11 editorial, Canadian universities must reform or perish. The response from my PSE friends on Twitter was provocative (the tweets can be found here on Storify); those involved in the discussion seemed to agree that while the article highlighted real and pressing problems, the analysis was awry. The issues being addressed in this article — quality, sustainability, and accountability — are relevant and important, but it’s the assumed answers to these issues that are troubling. I want to take a look at what I think are some of the implications of the argument.

One issue is that the article seems to focus on universities primarily as places of undergraduate education, whereas they’re viewed by faculty members (and administrators) as research centres as well. Professors don’t engage only in teaching, since teaching is not generally the sole mission of universities.

The article suggests that universities should train professors in pedagogy, and place more value on teaching in the tenure process; I wouldn’t argue with that. The trouble lies in the suggestion that teaching and research should be split apart and funded separately. Along with teaching-only campuses, this segregation of funding and function would further entrench an existing hierarchy — because universities and faculty members operate in a larger “market”, wherein research is given more prestige and more monetary value than teaching.

I’d argue that it’s a problem to suggest that funding for teaching should be tied to training and assessment (i.e. performance-based funding). Proposing that we fund universities by the “performance” of professors requires a reliable means of measuring this performance, and student learning is assumed to be the outcome. But a reliable measurement of student learning is like the “Holy Grail” of education research at all levels. Tests developed in the United States have provided some limited answers, but all standardised tests are somewhat fallible due to the annoyingly individualistic experience of education; tests mostly fulfill a function within systems, rather than providing real knowledge of knowledge, as it were.

While it’s possible to create systemic criteria — such as Ontario’s University Undergraduate Degree Levels Expectations (UUDLEs), for example — these measure a set of pre-defined skills determined by design, which excludes a good deal of what students may experience as well as future effects that learning may have on them.

Philosophical and practical difficulties arise from relying on measurable data in education: how do we begin to ask what numbers could show “proof” for outcomes like “critical thinking”, “creativity”, “innovation”, and “knowledge” itself? Will these measurements of  “learning outcomes” take into account student “inputs”? How will they do this? After all, education is a two-way process and not all students have the same capacities, nor do they all contribute the same amount of work.

Another related issue is that the article posits multiple, potentially conflicting goals for university education. Should the role of the university be to train workers for the knowledge economy, or to “bring the values and practices of a liberal arts and science education to the masses” — or both at once? If liberal education is the goal, then hiring more research professors, whose salaries the article refers to as a problem, is the best way to expand the system—rather than splitting teaching from research as suggested. That segregation has meant that enrollments are often expanded on the backs of part-time and contract teaching faculty who can be paid less and provided fewer or no benefits. The Globe’s editorial highlights this phenomenon without linking it to the expansion of enrollments alongside the separation of research from teaching.

The critique of current professors’ performances and salaries fails to get at the heart of a decades-old problem, mainly through an over-emphasis on the present outcomes of those long-term processes. In essence this is an individualizing critique that assumes professors who don’t want to teach, rather than 40 years of postsecondary expansion and economic change, are primarily responsible for the declining quality of undergraduate education. Yet professors don’t create provincial policy, nor do they set the limits on tuition fees, or even determine the number of students in a course. Tenure-track and tenured faculty are also juggling increased research and administration loads as competition becomes more intense. All these things have a strong effect on the environment in which teaching and learning takes place. If and when the concept of “quality” is focused on professors’ classroom performance, and on teaching and research as easily separable, then a narrow analysis — and flawed solutions — are likely to result.

Pragmatic preoccupations

I wrote the blog post below, as a re-cap from the Worldviews Pre-Conference  event on April 16th at the University of Toronto. As my example when I spoke on this panel, I discussed the media rhetoric about MOOCs and how it reflects various aspects of the current context of postsecondary education and its “crisis”. You can find the original post, from April 19 2013, at this link: Pragmatic preoccupations.

This past Tuesday afternoon I participated in another panel (‘tis the season!) about higher education, this time at the University of Toronto. The panel was part of a pre-conference event for the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education, addressing how the “pragmatic agenda” is represented in media coverage of higher education. According to the event description, this agenda includes a focus on issues such as privatization of costs (and tuition fees), technological solutions to systemic problems, the “completion agenda” and job training, and emphasis on the value of STEM disciplines alongside critiques of the liberal arts. The other participants on the panel were Janice Gross Stein, Clifford Orwin, and Scott Jaschik, and the moderator was Rick Salutin. The keynote talk was given by journalist Tony Burman, formerly of Al Jazeera.

I’ve been looking forward to Worldviews because media coverage of higher education is an area in which I’ve had an interest for some time. I think this is at least in part because my undergraduate degree was in Communication Studies with a focus on mass media and linguistics. In my MA thesis I analysed university PR, and since I started my PhD I’ve done several projects involving media coverage of university-related issues such as the York University strike in 2008-2009, and the CERC announcements in 2010, and written a fewblog posts on the theme of media and academe. Aside from my interest in these issues, I also attended the last Worldviews conference and thought it was an unusually interesting mix of attendees (primarily from the media and from academe, and international in scope).

Before the event, we discussed the panel format and Mr. Salutin proposed a question in advance: “what are your frustrations and criticisms regarding media treatments of the pragmatic agenda in higher education?” The response I gave to this was that, probably because I research this area, I find oftentimes complex issues are simplified in media articles in ways that more clearly support one argument or another that is associated with some particular agenda. The way a problem is framed tends to point to a particular solution. Since so many problems seem to be framed primarily in economic terms, there is a certain reductionist logic that recurs in the discussions.

The example I raised was that of the media coverage on MOOCs. I’ve written a piece about this phenomenon already, and I’ve also been following the ongoing coverage from a variety of sources since it first exploded last year. During the panel discussion I found that while I wanted to use MOOCs as an example of media discourse, the debate drifted to the pros and cons of MOOCs and not to the way that they are talked about and positioned within existing political, economic, and institutional contexts and discourses. I think if we focus in on that positioning, there are clear connections to the most salient post-secondary “crises” of the day. This is part of why MOOCs in the abstract have become a kind of popular trope for educational change, if not in mainstream Canadian media, then certainly in the higher ed news and in a number of U.S. media sources. For example (pardon the scare quotes):

  • Emphasis on curing a problem of “scale” through technological intervention, which is presented (inaccurately) as a form of genuine accessibility;
  • Focus on “outcomes” rather than (educational) processes;
  • Metaphors of “delivery” and “production” that point to the objectification and commodification of knowledge and learning;
  • The assumption that what the university does can and should be “unbundled” for “efficiency” and “flexibility”;
  • “Value” is defined in a specific way, i.e. economically;
  • “Quality” is envisioned on market terms, e.g. “elite” professors (who efficiently deliver educational “content”  to tens of thousands of students);
  • Concomitant critiques of faculty mediocrity, particularly in terms of teaching, placed in relation to rising tuition fees;
  • Framing of higher education “crisis” and necessary radical, institutional change with metaphors of inevitability such as “avalanche”, “tsunami”, “storm” and “wave”, all of which invoke natural disasters over which people have no control, and to which they must “respond” quickly and appropriately.

Further to the MOOCs example, we can also look at the amount of “debate” driven by big name players in (ed-) tech and publishing right now, and how the agendas there can play in to the fragmentation and privatization of higher education. This rhetoric supports the strategy of commercializing and commodifying education for a larger, international “market”. In addition there have been a number of articles in the mainstream press by “thought leaders” such as Clay Shirky and Thomas Friedman, that demonstrate false analogies and hyperbolic assumptions that fit with much of what I’ve described above.

Thankfully, raising this example didn’t totally derail the rest of the discussion, though overall the panel did make me wish I had the time right now to do more research on media coverage, particularly the  “link bait” pieces that seem to be popping up with more regularity these days (such as the recent “don’t do a PhD” article in Slate, and last year’s Forbes article describing faculty work as relaxing). These provide us with another example of how important issues can be hijacked in the name of raising an angry response that generates pageviews – in other words, the changing political economy of the media interacts with the context of higher education and influences how it’s talked about and understood. I think that’s a good reason for us to pay attention to that relationship and to the kinds of talk it produces.

HASTAC-y goodness

I wrote up a summary of the few days I spent at the HASTAC conference in Toronto.

Here are the Storify pieces I made for each of the four days of the conference:

Day 1 – Day 2 – Day 3 – Day 4

And here is a link to the original post published on May 1, 2013: HASTAC-y goodness.

This past weekend I attended HASTAC 2013, held at York University in Toronto. This was the first HASTAC conference held in Canada, and about half the participants were Canadian. In fact, it was the first time the conference had (physically) happened outside the United States. The HASTAC (“haystack”) acronym stands for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory; it’s a “virtual organization” co-founded by David Theo Goldberg and Cathy Davidson in 2002, which functions as a kind of user-driven platform, a support system and a place of meeting and collaboration for scholars interested in technology, creativity, pedagogy and educational change. I became interested in learning more about the organization because I seemed to know a lot of people who were involved in one way or another. When I discovered that the 2013 conference would happen at York University, I realized I had a perfect opportunity to find out first-hand what kind of work was being created by affiliated scholars.

HASTAC isn’t the usual academic conference featuring a menu of panels packed with academic talks. It’s a bit of a smörgåsbord of goodies: alongside regular keynote talks, panels and posters, there were “lightning talks”, demos, performances, multimedia art and even a Maker Space. I decided to attend fewer panels and spend more of my time looking at exhibits, taking photos, and interacting with participants – I managed to see some fascinating things and meet many new friends and colleagues, some of whom I’d chatted with online but hadn’t yet met in person.

At the Maker Space, a 3D scanner and printer could be used to create tiny 3D portraits.

The conference kicked off last Thursday evening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in downtown Toronto with a keynote from Cathy Davidson, which started a lively debate on the Twitter backchannel.

Friday’s schedule included one event I’d determined to check out, the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In, sponsored by the Rewriting Wikipedia Project. The idea for this event was sparked partly by research on the gender imbalance in Wikipedia editors and in the content on the website itself. One participant at the conference (Ruby Sinreich) was editing the HASTAC entry itself, and another (Michael Widner) worked on an entry for Caribbean writer Karen Lord – who then turned out to be on Twitter and started chatting with him. Though I hadn’t prepared myself adequately to write or edit a Wikipedia article, I did a search for noted higher ed scholar Sheila Slaughter and discovered that she didn’t yet have a page. I felt the urge to remedy this immediately, but didn’t have the time to dig in to the task (of course, others did – here is a report of what they achieved).

Wikipedia editing with Ruby Sinreich, Michael Widner, and Amanda Phillips.

Near the Wikipedia room, like buried treasure, there was a distractingly entertaining Kinect demo happening. I’m not at all familiar with the technical terms and I couldn’t find the names of the creator/s (they were from OCAD, and the group included prof Paula Gardner), but I still wanted to mention this piece because I loved the idea: it involved generating different kinds of sounds through movement, for example if you walked forwards or backwards within a specific area, the music became louder or softer; if you moved left or right, the notes moved from low and “bassy” to high, tinkly sounds. I made sure to capture a video so the effect could be conveyed more directly.

On Saturday, in spite of missing the early bus to York I managed to catch most of the morning panel “Building an Academic Community for the Digital Age” with Fiona BarnettAmanda Phillips, and Viola Lasmana. Each of the panel members made strong points about the need for mutual scholarly and personal support, the importance of the emotional/affective side of building connections and doing work as a community (not just as individuals), and the role of HASTAC in facilitating and working on/with these things. I won’t paraphrase too much because the presenters’ own words are far more articulate than mine on these issues (their posts are linked, above).

By Saturday afternoon it was our panel’s turn to present, and in a sense our theme was “community” as well. My co-panelist Bonnie Stewart introduced us as “the most ironic panel” at the conference: our session was called “Cohorts without Borders” (my slides are here), and indeed two of our panel members were unable to attend in person because of borders and barriers of various kinds. Our colleague sava saheli singh, an Indian citizen living in the U.S., couldn’t get a visa in time from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (she did her talk through Skype); and Trent M. Kays, who contributed a video of his talk and then tuned in via Skype, was unable to get funding for his conference trip (a special shout-out goes to Daniel Lynds, who provided crucial technical support for our presentations). This highlights a “missing piece” from the rhetoric about the international “talent market” and mobility of students, scholars and “knowledge workers” around the globe, i.e. that some can be mobile while plenty of others have their movements (and contributions) restricted by a lack of resources and/or by policies that treat people differently according to their citizenship status. This is also a crucial issue in any discussion about internationalization and access to the professoriate.

Later on Saturday evening, York’s Scott Library was the venue for an after-hours reception that featured a performance piece called Digitize and/or Destroy, by York librarians William DentonAdam Lauder, and Lisa Sloniowski. The piece was designed to highlight the process of digitization (and the work of librarians) and the kinds of decisions that have to be made during it. Each participant was invited to select a book from a trolley, and the choice of either destroying it (several pages would be cut out and shredded), or digitizing it (the book’s cover would be scanned, meta-data recorded and posted to a Tumblr), or both – in whatever order we preferred. Some of the books participants chose to have shredded included “Wife in Training”, various Weight Watchers books, and (my pick) “The Tipping Point”.

This post is just a small taste of this year’s HASTAC conference menu. If you’re interested in reading more about the conference panelists and talks, HASTAC Scholars Director Fiona Barnett has created a roundup of blog posts about the conference, available here.

Adam Lauder, W.P. Scott Chair for Research in e-Librarianship at York University, “destroys” part of a copy of “The Tipping Point”.