Risk, responsibility, and public academics

This piece addresses the way that early-career academics feel encouraged to engage in public or interactive communication, yet find that the professional assessment of these activities is still fairly low – and that the professional “risk” isn’t the same for everyone. It was re-posted on the LSE Impact Blog, titled “More attention should be paid to the risks facing early career researchers in encouraging wider engagement”. Here is a link to the original post, from July 3, 2013: Risk, responsibility, and public academics.

As my last academic event of the season, I attended Worldviews 2013: Global Trends in Media and Higher Education in Toronto on June 20th and 21st. I’m not going to write about the panel in which I participated (“Who are the MOOC users?”, with Joe Wilson, Aron Solomon, and Andrew Ng), since I’ve already spent enough time thinking and writing about that issue of late. But there was another very interesting theme that I noticed coming up throughout the conference. In a number of the sessions I attended, I heard emphasis being placed on the need for researchers and academics to communicate more with publics beyond the specialist audiences that have, until recently, been the norm.

This language of “engagement” has been taken up ever more enthusiastically by funding agencies and universities, often alongside the concept of “impact”, the latter term having already become influential (and embedded in the logic of research governance) in the UK. However, in all this talk about “engagement” and public communication it seems that less attention is being given to the question of which academics participate in this process – who can make use of the opportunity to “engage”, and why.

For a start, it’s somewhat disingenuous to discuss the “responsibility” for academic public engagement without considering the risks that this involves, and for whom that risk is most significant  – i.e. most likely those already in marginalized positions in the institution and in society. The point about risk was not addressed explicitly in discussions I heard at the conference. In spite of the rhetoric about “impact”, the fear that many graduate students and early career researchers (ECRs) feel – and the anecdotal evidence of folks being told not to get involved in certain kinds of activities – suggests that “engagement” must happen on terms explicitly approved by the institution, if those involved are seeking academic careers. Grad students are not generally encouraged to become “public intellectuals”, a concept that regularly provokes critiques from those both within and outside the academy.

Not only was risk left out of the picture, but the discussion wasn’t adequately placed in the context of increasing amount of non-TT labour in academe. Those not fortunate enough to be on the tenure track still want to be (and are) scholars and researchers too; but it’s harder for them to contribute to public debates in the same way because they don’t tend to have a salary to fund their work, or a university “home base” to provide them with the stamp of academic credibility. I noticed at one panel there was also a discussion about tenure and academic freedom, and the argument was made that profs with tenure don’t speak up enough, given the protections they enjoy. Again, I think the more interesting question is about who gets to speak freely, with or without tenure, and why. Do all tenured faculty get to assume the same kind of “freedom” that someone like Geoffrey Miller does (or did)? What will happen to such freedom when the work of academics is further “unbundled”, as with the growing proportion of low-status contract faculty?

Blogging of course falls into the category of “risky practice” as well. Writing a good blog post actually takes time, effort, practice, and a lot of thought. But what’s interesting, and perhaps predictable, is that blogs were dismissed as not credible by at least one participant during a Worldviews panel that was about the future of the relationship between higher education and the media. In fact a specific comment referred to ECRs “trying to make a name for themselves” through social media, as if this is merely a form of shallow egotism as opposed to a legitimate means of building much-needed academic networks.

This seems particularly short-sighted in light of the intense competition faced by graduate students and other ECRs who want to develop an academic career. To suggest that ECRs are simply using tweets and blogs as vacuous promotional activities is an insidious argument in two ways: firstly because it implies that such tools have no value as a form of dissemination of research (and development of dialogue), and secondly it invokes the idea that “real” academics do not have to descend to such crass forms of self-aggrandizement. Both of these points are, in my opinion, simply untrue – but then again I’m just “a blogger”!

If universities are going to help educate a generation of researchers who will cross the traditional boundaries of academe, they will need to support these people in a much more public way – and in a way that will be reflected by the priorities of departments and in the process of tenure and promotion. Yes, we have the “3-Minute Thesis” and “Dance Your PhD“, but not everyone enjoys participating in this competitive way – and myriad other forms of public, critical engagement may be less well-accepted. Universities may make the claim that they value such forms, but who other than well-established researchers would be willing to speak up (especially about the academic system itself) without the fear of making a “career-limiting move”?

Those starting out in academic life need to receive the message, loud and clear, that this kind of “public” work is valued. They need to know that what they’re doing is a part of a larger project or movement, a more significant shift in the culture of academic institutions, and that it will be recognized as such. This will encourage them to do the work of engagement alongside other forms of work that currently take precedence in the prestige economy of academe. Tenured faculty are not the only ones with a stake in participating in the creation and sharing of knowledge. If we’re looking for “new ideas”, then we need to welcome newcomers into the conversation that is developing and show that their contributions are valued, rather than discouraging them from – or chastising them for – trying to participate.

On the up and up – Socioeconomic class and inter-generational change

I wrote this post after watching the Up Series, a group of documentaries begun in 1964 and continued for every 7 years after. The series traces the personal histories of a group of children through their adulthood. I was struck by how much people’s life trajectories seem to have changed within less than 2 generations, particularly with regards to education and employment. The latest instalment of the Up Series – 56 Up – was released in 2012. Here is a link to the original post from September 19, 2011: On the up and up.

“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.”

— Jesuit saying

This week I spent a couple of days watching every movie in the Up Series, a set of seven documentary films that follow the lives of a group of English children over a period of about 45 years.

The Up Series is an unusual and fascinating project that began in 1964, when a program was commissioned by Granada Television as part of the World in Action TV series. The first episode, Seven Up, was directed by Paul Almond, and Michael Apted took over for the following six films which were produced in 1970, 1977, 1984, 1991, 1998, and 2005.

The films follow the lives of 14 children who were initially chosen as “representative” of various socio-economic class (SEC) strata. The program was designed to focus on the “determining” role of class in people’s life circumstances. The group of children included was geographically and socially diverse, ranging from one child from the rural Yorkshire Dales to those from London’s East End and suburban Liverpool.

In successive episodes, the participants were asked about various topics including their leisure time activities, educational environment, family, class and money, and race. The project later delved more into participants’ personal lives — choices and relationships, attitudes and motivations, and self-awareness. Several of them bowed out of a number of episodes over time.

Aside from the fascination of watching lives unfold, I was most interested in the role of education, which was a focus in the series because of the association made between education and SEC. There were varied educational experiences within the group, including elite private and prep schools (singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Latin!), state comprehensive and grammar schools, and a charity-based boarding school; several of the children later attended Oxbridge while others didn’t complete high school. Style of education is framed as an early sorting mechanism, as in the first episode where the narrator argues that the “distinction between freedom and discipline is the key to [the children’s] whole future.”

What’s become clearer over time is that this series also provides a small portrait of a generation. Born in 1957, these children were part of the long post-war Baby Boom. They grew up in an era of unprecedented change, both to social values and to economic prospects; and they benefited uniquely from the Keynesian “welfare state”, much of which was built by their parents’ generation.

There was a huge difference in the perception of education between participants, as well as between “then and now”. Those who weren’t from privileged circumstances seemed to see higher education as optional to a full life, including a career and a family, though for some it clearly wasn’t an option presented. This was a contrast to the children from wealthy families who knew from a young age the stepping-stones to professional careers.

The trajectory of life in general was also different, possibly because of the timing of education. Many of the participants had married and had children by 28. Several of the marriages had lasted over 20 years by the time 49 Up was filmed in 2006 (though several others had divorced). Most started full-time work at a younger age than the current average — including the one participant who became an academic.

Within a generation, we’ve already seen this picture change beyond recognition. It’s now uncommon for teens to leave school at the age of 15 or 16 for other prospects, probably because there are no prospects without at least a high school diploma. High school alone is not “enough” anymore; class mobility is practically impossible without a post-secondary credential, and even then, the competition is fierce. These days, the news from the UK indicates that teenagers there (and elsewhere) are thoroughly preoccupied with trying to map our their life choices at earlier ages as they navigate the educational system, suffering increased anxiety over future prospects, and sometimes a sense of lethargic hopelessness in the face of increasing economic inequality.

Class still matters, now as much as ever. Watching the Up Series films made me think about what we might learn about class, culture, and education if we had not only longitudinal, statistical information, but qualitative work that fleshes out the complex processes involved in people’s decisions, the opportunities available to them, and the ways in which education is involved. The larger story of a life in context tells us more than a series of numbers. But with cuts to education research in Canada, it’s hard to imagine that kind of study being pursued in the near future.

Who will hire all the PhDs?

The latest article I’ve written for the Globe & Mail looks at the question of whether Canada produces “too many” PhDs. This is something I’ve also discussed in past blog posts and presentations. I still think there is a huge disconnect in the way the government imagines PhDs as “skilled workers”, and the reality of their apparent job options. In the future I’d really like to do more research on how people come to see themselves as “successful” or not in a PhD programme, and how that affects their career decisions. The full text of the article is below.

A persistent theme in current discussions about graduate education and its outcomes is the question of whether Canada is “producing too many PhDs.” While enrollments (and numbers of PhD graduates) have increased with the encouragement of policy, more of these grads now struggle to find employment that matches the level and nature of their education – particularly employment in universities, as tenure-track faculty. The situation in Canada is not as dire as in the States where just this week it was reported that three quarters of faculty work as adjuncts, but accounts of under-employed PhDs working as waiters and cab drivers have become more common.

The question of precisely how many PhDs we “need” is one that’s directly tied to our ideas about the purpose of doctoral education. Debates about the ideal number of PhDs tend to be framed in terms of the academic job market, more specifically the demand for tenure-track professors at universities, because of the assumption that the PhD is intended primarily for those who want a career in academe. This assumption permeates doctoral education, partly because a doctorate is required in order to become a professor – professors are the primary educators of new PhDs.

Yet for 30 years or more, the availability of these jobs has been declining. The traditional academic career has become a focus of debate and critique because while PhD programmes have grown, tenure-track hiring has not kept pace. Universities have seen their resources reduced relative to the number of students enrolled, and they’ve coped partly by hiring contract faculty for undergraduate teaching. Meanwhile, we hear reports of hundreds of applications per tenure-track position, and of increasingly inflated expectations for applicants. Each cohort faces competition from the unemployed grads of previous years, as well as applicants from other jurisdictions such as the United States, Australia, and the U.K. Those who don’t find long-term faculty jobs may end up working in low-paid, unstable contract teaching and postdoctoral positions. This is why a now-infamous article in the Economist claimed the PhD is a “waste of time.”

In the past, there has never been a 100 per cent correlation between getting a PhD and becoming a professor, but the situation now seems more acute. With all the un/under-employment horror stories circulating, why do governments want to keep raising the number of PhDs? One reason is that they don’t view the PhD as a route exclusively to the professoriate. The logic of the “knowledge economy” suggests that increasing the number of people with advanced degrees – known as “highly qualified personnel” – leads to more innovation, and thus more economic development. What governments want are not more professors, but more well-educated people in many areas of the workforce. What governments can’t do is ensure that some students are keen to graduate with plans to enter those other areas, as opposed to academe.

Can there really be a purpose for the PhD other than as preparation for the tenure track? For more academics and students the answer is now “yes,” but in many doctoral programmes outcomes other than permanent academic employment are not viewed positively. Those who pursue them may receive less institutional support and faculty mentorship, because PhD supervisors are usually faculty who have primarily worked within the university, and they’re less likely to have cultivated professional relationships elsewhere.

Canada is only “producing too many PhDs” if every student is being encouraged to pursue an academic career and nothing else. In that case, there certainly aren’t enough positions to go around. One solution is that universities should increase tenure-track hiring so that more full-time permanent work is available. Yet even if this happened, it’s unlikely there would be enough jobs to “absorb” all those currently under– and unemployed, who are still on the academic job market. Should PhD programmes be reduced in size? Perhaps, but the problem with simply reducing enrollments is that it’s likely to restrict doctoral education to those who can most easily access the right resources. This lowers the chances that traditionally underprivileged groups will be represented among faculty at Canadian universities.

What’s most important is for prospective PhDs to have a clear understanding not only of the competitive conditions for academic jobs, but also the range of possibilities opened up by doctoral education, which are far more diverse than those generally presented in graduate programmes. Those possibilities must also be developed actively through collaboration between universities, governments, other non-academic organizations and students, so that the promise of advanced education isn’t lost due to lack of mentorship, guidance and opportunity.

Viewing every doctoral candidate solely as a future tenure-track prof is no more helpful than assuming each of us should calculate our own value only in terms of clear economic benefit to the nation. The assumptions in each case conflate students’ needs with the competing agendas of governments, which view PhDs as bearers of “human capital,” and of the graduate programmes that gain prestige by educating successful professors. But PhD grads have personal contexts to consider and lives to live, and we need to make sure they’re informed and prepared enough to make decisions that will work for them. Only then will we start to see a change in the way doctoral education works, not just for the economy and for the government but for graduates themselves.

Myths and mismatches: Where from here?

This is the last part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 17, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches”: Where from here?

The last series of blog posts left me all blogged out for a couple of weeks, but I thought I’d offer a follow-up post regarding my thoughts on the e-course by Jo and Julie, on career planning and professional development, and a few other things.

What I found helpful about the course was that it provided me something to respond to, and in the process I found myself thinking harder about my current decisions. And because I’m feeling “stuck” and unfocussed at the moment, this was a valuable exercise. I tried to imagine my self in a particular role, and asked: what would I look like doing this job? How is that going to happen? Where do my current actions take me in terms of that kind of goal? Fairly basic stuff, but I find writing it all down tends to help me with coherence and direction. And when I’m feeling lost, I like to focus on the tangible aims that make it easier to make decisions in the present–since they build towards something in the future.

Some of the things I’m doing at the moment in order to provide myself direction–in a few different aspects of (academic) career development:

Making a decision about an academic “subject area” in which I could work comfortably, i.e. as a member of a department or program or team. This sounds like a no-brainer, and for most people in a PhD program it hasn’t been an issue since at least the MA level. But because of the way my interests have developed, choosing an “area” has been a less than straightforward process (my degrees are in Communication Studies, Linguistics, and Education).

A related task is to work towards drawing my various projects into a well-articulated and coherent research “map” that works within that subject area. I have diverse interests, but diversity is only a strength if it’s grounded in something stable like a good knowledge base, along with a plan regarding how the various pieces fit together and reinforce each other. I know well enough how everything is related, but I need to work actively to make those connections clear to others. This is important no matter what line of work I end up following.

…Alongside the usual academic channels, I’ve been experimenting with using social media to meet new colleagues and develop professional relationships, to “network” and to share/publicise my own work, to develop opportunities for contributing to ongoing debates (such as writing articles for other blogs and web sites), and to keep up with news/issues in my fields. As a result, I’m thinking about blogging and other “public communication” as part of academics being “public intellectuals”, not just professors or employees of the university. I’d like my blog to be a way to share my ideas even as I’m developing them in other ways (e.g. through research).

While I won’t swap social media for more traditional fora such academic conferences, participation in the latter is restricted for me because of the expense (travel, accommodation, registration fees) and timing. Sources like Twitter are an ongoing means of conversing with others whose interests I share, engaging in long-term exchanges that keep me thinking and that open up the discussion to anyone who can use a hashtag.

I’m working on teaching through practice (even just with my small tutorial group this year) and through development of approaches and philosophies; and I’m thinking about pedagogy rather than “teaching”, about theory and overall strategy as well as classroom tactics and practices. I’m looking for ways to examples that “stick”.

And in the context of our wired classroom, where students can use laptops and Blackberries to “tune out” from course discussions, I’m trying to understand and take into account the issues involved – “student engagement” and technology in the classroom; consumerism and credentialism; cognitive development in learning; differences in learning “styles” – and translate that back into an approach that gets students interested enough to abandon Facebook in the middle of class (high hopes, I know).

I still see teaching and learning as being about relationships, communication, partnership, mutual responsibility, motivation, feedback, confidence, hard work, listening, and changing your approach when something doesn’t work. Most important to me is to create an environment wherein questions and discussion can happen. With all that in mind I’m considering things like course design (in the abstract) and how this relates to pedagogy, particularly in terms of how different aspects of the course (curriculum/readings, assignments, tutorials and TAs, lectures) all have to work together in a way that makes sense to students.

I think that’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed the series of “Myths & Mismatches” posts, and if you’re following my blog – thanks for joining me!

Myths and mismatches, part 10

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 17, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 10: What it takes, for what it’s worth.

Here is the last post in my series of responses to Jo Van Every and Julie Clarenbach‘s e-course on “Myths & Mismatches” in academic careers. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, and I recommend this e-course as well as other materials available on both authors’ web sites.

Mismatch #5: Mismatch of Skills

As discussed in a previous post in this series, we often gain more “skills” from graduate training than we think. But the “flip-side” of that fact is that those skills are also requiredto develop successful academic career.

“Success” at an academic job involves juggling aspects of work that require both collaboration and independent, creative work; maintaining a high level of communicative competence in both spoken and written forms and for diverse audiences; working both within and without structures and time constraints, as the context demands/requires; and having both micro- and macro-level understanding of a topic or issue or project.

While “for some people, these skills come naturally”, many of us will need to learn to balance our strengths and weaknesses to achieve the necessary results; personally I think I’ll need a workaround for my introversion (I now call it being “selectively social”), for my non-linear mode of approaching things (though I’m getting much better at dealing with that), and for my chronic perfectionism about research/writing (the blog helps, I think). I worry that I’ll be too “taxed” by teaching to finish any worthwhile research, that my focus couldn’t be sustained while my attention has to be stretched in so many different directions. But then I also know that when I get into a scheduled “groove”, I often rise to the challenge and get more work done than I would otherwise.

The question posed by Jo and Julie is whether “making do” in this way is “sustainable” for you. Like students, academics “have wildly different skill sets” and while “there may be a way to bridge that gap […] it may not be worth the time and effort required”. In other words, if the demands of the job feel like “too much”, there may only be so far you can go in terms of professionalizing yourself. In my case, I ask myself whether I can learn to hone my focus for shorter periods in order to cope with the fragmentation of diverse scheduled tasks, and whether I can clobber my perfectionism and just “let go” of my writing the way others seem to be able to do. Whether I can get around feeling a disheartening sense of personal responsibility every time a student does poorly. Will “trying harder” be enough?

Myths and mismatches, part 9

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 17, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 9 – Finding Your Place.

Today’s myth from Jo and Julie is one I find quite important – perhaps because I’ve done quite a bit of moving around throughout my life. I’m giving this one a lot of consideration as I ponder the next steps.

Myth #5: Geography Doesn’t Matter

In case you hadn’t heard, “academia is notable for the lack of control we have about where we end up geographically, especially in a job market with few opportunities.”
I know that for me, place has always had importance. Sometimes there’s more of a connection to the people around me (as there is in Ontario, where I’ve now lived for quite a while). Other places just feel “right” whether I know someone there or not (Montreal, for some reason; and New Zealand, probably because I grew up there). There are also places like England that I love to visit, but where I could never see myself living.

In a profession where long-term positions are becoming harder to obtain, mobility becomes an asset in your job search. But this is also the reason why “it’s not uncommon for people to end up in geographic locations that just don’t work for their lives and personalities.”

There’s more to place than climate and topography: “let’s face it — being the only person of color or queer person around is rarely sustainable.” The latter point is at least semi-relevant to me personally, and I think it applies to one’s life-politics (as opposed to life-style) as well. For example, I know a lot of people who have applied for work in the U.S., but I wouldn’t personally feel comfortable moving there even for a temporary position. That’s a personal preference, which also stems from cultural tastes and familiarities developed over a lifetime. But it’s also savvy to know and understand that there’s no way I would “fit in” at a college in rural Arkansas (or at least, that’s not how I want to spend my time).

Why is it, then, that where you work is supposed to be irrelevant? To return to a running theme in these posts, if you’re living “the Life of the Mind” then “geography doesn’t matter — because you can take your mind anywhere.” This is of course untrue at every level of post-secondary education (and elsewhere). It’s also an idea underpinned by the separation of mind and body, by the ideal of the ascetic/academic, and by the assumption of a guarded boundary between the university and the “real world”.

I feel the same way about my living/working space as I do about geographic location–I’m more stressed, it’s harder for me to work, when I’m living in an unpleasant environment and there are people with whom I don’t get along. At the moment I’m lucky, I have a great space and I share it with only my cats; I’m an introvert so this works out very well for me. I admit that I need quiet and physical order to get my work done, mostly because my mental state is usually pretty chaotic (or “creative” to put it nicely). The same point applies to institutional spaces, something I wrote about here.

I agree that geography, that place, “matters to our happiness, it matters to our health, and it matters to our relationships” and that this affects how well we’re able to do our jobs. When you make a decision you need to take into account that place contributes to your career trajectory often in unforeseen ways. Just as the wrong institution or department can be a “mismatch” (often a career setback), so can the wrong city/town or country.

Myths and mismatches, part 8

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 15, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 8-Are You “At Home”?

My series of responses continues today with one of the most crucial issues you might end up facing as a graduate student or as a professor…

Mismatch #4: Mismatch of personality

Every workplace, every university department or academic “unit”, is more than the sum of its walls and windows, its rules and regulations. It’s a place that emerges partly from the interactions of the people involved, i.e. faculty, staff, students, and so on; “the basic personality of departments, not to mention universities, is a conglomeration of many factors”. These include institutional orientation (e.g. research or teaching); departmental divides along theoretical, methodological or generational lines; and “the particular configurations of personalities that just don’t work well together”.

You’ve probably noticed after spending years in university environments that you feel more at home within some of these spaces than in others–and you might have identified some of those factors that “work” for you. But it’s really hard to tell what a “good fit” might be from only brief interactions with place, and with people and institutional structures. I’ve often felt afraid of making the wrong call on this point, since “much of this personality […] isn’t apparent at first glance”. And it feels even more important when one thinks about applying for faculty positions; as a student there is always the option of switching programs or institutions, but faculty need to be able to fit in eventually with their colleagues and with the university in the long term.

Jo and Julie argue that when a “personality” disconnect occurs, “the problem isn’t you–it’s just the mismatch between what you need and what they offer.” You can work with compromise up to a point, but you need to recognise if and when “you just don’t fit the culture of the department or institution”.

Future tense

This post addresses how students are often preoccupied with the future because they’re insecure in the present (particularly financially, but in other ways too). No-one can really blame them from wanting to know where university will take them, since after all, they were told they had to go to university in order to get work later. If you don’t know much else about it, it’s hard to comprehend what else education might be for. Ironically, this means it can be harder to tap into the desire that’s needed in order to excel at university learning. Here is the link to the original post, from March 24, 2011: Future tense.

Perhaps because it’s grading season—mid-term exams and assignments have been rolling in and TAs and course directors are dealing with the results—over the past few weeks I’ve been seeing a lot of frustrated talk from academics on Twitter and Facebook. Some of it’s angry, some of it’s more anguished than anything else; but the common thread is that we’re all feeling as if we can’t “reach” students, and that students in turn aren’t doing their share of the work involved in the educational process.

Part of the problem is the way I just defined “education” in that last sentence. I invoked the notion of education as a “process” involving effort from both the person assigned as “teacher” and the people being “taught”; I don’t assume the students are the only ones doing the learning. But as I’ve argued in the past, a consumerist model of education—which encourages students to view education as either a service or a product or some mutation that blends both (“service product”)—undermines the notion of active participation because it assumes a strong element of “delivery” rather than “co-production”. We had a discussion about this in a recent tutorial where I pushed the knowledge-as-object metaphor to its ridiculous limit by drawing on the image of a “basket of knowledge” that we could pass around the room and from which students could simply take what they needed.

Apart from this definitional misunderstanding that causes so many conflicting assumptions about responsibilities and self-conduct, I suspect there are even bigger issues at work. I like asking of students, “how did you know you should go to university?” The reason I ask is because I’m interested in where that decision came from, not just the “why” of it. When we ask “why did you come to university?”, the answer is usually predictable—“because without a degree I cannot get a job.” If we ask how the decision was made, responses are usually quite interesting, and they reflect the influence that parents, teachers and guidance counselors have on students’ decision-making processes.

But what happens to the “work preparation” narrative when students realize that a university education is no longer any guarantee of employment, let alone the “dream jobs” that so many young people are encouraged to envision for themselves? I think this is where the whole arrangement starts to fall apart. You can tell students there are rewards (e.g. in the form of post-graduate employment options), and indeed the statistics continue to point to the financial benefits of PSE for graduates. But if you offer students no (clear) path to those rewards then the result is sometimes a disaffected nihilism towards learning. And one problem with university education is that is was never really designed to offer a clear path to employment.

We need to get at the contradiction in the fact that students come to university because it’s “necessary” to get ahead in life, yet in some cases they show little or no enthusiasm for university learning and confusion that there is no obvious connection between what happens in class and what they expect to happen at a job, later on. I think this is why we sometimes hear disparaging comments about how “undergrad is the new high school”–necessary, but not necessarily enjoyable or productive.

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about why students “tune out” during class and tutorial, particularly when technology shows up as a distraction from class. Larger social, economic and educational trends are one reason for effects such as these, for example the consumerist concept of education as “product” often correlates with students’ focus on grades (outcomes) rather than learning (which often irritates professors and TAs).

We can’t take on those big issues alone, in one course, in one university; they’re ongoing and need to be addressed and re-addressed by everyone. The question is how to navigate these currents when we’re faced with the everyday “realities” and frustrations of teaching in universities–grammatically unsound assignments written in haste because students are working 20 or 30 hours a week alongside full-time study (so who’s to blame?); flimsy excuses for skipped tutorials (who can we believe?); papers submitted weeks late without notifying the professor or TA that an extension was required (how could we know?); students “burning out” and disappearing without even dropping the course (what happened?); and on, and on.

Now more than ever we’re reminded that education is a collaborative effort, and behind that effort must be desire–the desire of the person “teaching” to assist, collaborate and convey; and that of the students, a hunger for knowledge based in questions about the world. Last night in class I talked about how I became interested in education and involved in politics, and how in my experience the key ingredient to success in university is to find some thing about which you have critical questions, a boundless curiosity, a constant hankering, an “itch” that can only be scratched with learning. I think then the learning starts to drive itself.

The difficulty lies in getting to those questions and issues, since their instrumentality for the future is obscure in the present. It’s why I told my own story–because students lack narratives they can use to order their present experience, and the tools to construct their own potential narrative; so they find it hard to project into the future even though they are so focussed on it. This is an anxiety-producing state of affairs.

New possibilities open up when we make the connections required to understand a story about how something happened, rather than a description of what is. Maybe it’s this causality that students crave, since they live in a world lacking the certainty with which their parents were so fortuitously blessed. The old stories about careers, adulthood and family no longer ring true in this era of instability, workforce “flexibility”, debt and recession.

Perhaps the universities should be places/spaces where we start telling new stories.

Myths and mismatches, part 5

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 11, 2011: “Myths & Mismatches” Part 5: The Myth of Academic Meritocracy.

Today’s “myth” from Jo and Julie is possibly the biggest one of all, and thus the most destructive should you buy into it whole-heartedly. It ties in with every other point that’s been made thus far in this series…

“Myth #3: Merit is Everything.”

I just want to point out that my response to this issue is always a very personal one, for reasons I will partially explain below.

For the record, the ideal of meritocracy–that you succeed at academic work primarily because of how smart you are–is a myth (as Jo and Julie state: “Excuse our language, but this is all a fucking load of steaming crap”). And there are plenty of examples that illustrate it. One of them is the issue of socioeconomic class, something that has an effect literally from birth. In the research on post-secondary education (PSE), SEC is a clear factor and yet one that various researchers attempt to mitigate by making the claim that cultural capital matters more than economic capital. Any study you’ve seen that makes claims about the improving influence of the “number of books in the house” is a study making claims about class and culture in this way. The problem is that if you used the available statistics to draw a nice Venn diagram, you’d discover that the overlap between “class (economic) privilege” and “cultural capital” makes the diagram look more like one circle than two. Translation: you may have more books in the house, but you might not have the money to pay for an academically elite private school, or even for the extra tutoring that improves your grades and helps you win that merit scholarship. Money matters at least as much as “merit”.

Money also matters when you decide it’s not worth going into $35,000 worth of debt to finance your degree, even if a degree is “an investment that really pays off” as the research tells us (again and again). I know I didn’t want to go to graduate school if it meant I’d have to increase my student loan burden. Does that mean I would have been somehow “less smart” if I hadn’t gone? As it turns out, my grad degrees have been financed primarily by merit-based scholarships. Does that mean I’m now, somehow, inherently smarter than you? (Hint: the answer is “no”.) In the PSE research literature, this attitude of mine is called “debt aversion”. To me, coming from what would financially be called a working-class background, it’s called “common sense”.

Socioeconomic class is only one of the reasons why “merit” is a concept that draws a veil over the causes of “success” and “failure” in academe. But it’s the one with which I have the most intimate familiarity, and it’s why this response of mine is mostly about money/class/privilege vs. merit.

Jo and Julie write that the myth of merit-based success “doesn’t build us up -— it makes us live in fear that, any day now, someone is going to figure out that we aren’t as smart as they think we are, and then they’ll kick us out.” This is why so many (particularly female) graduate students suffer from what’s known as “imposter syndrome“.

But what I’ve noticed is that some people seem completely impervious to the debilitating threats to self-confidence – the daemons of self-doubt – that I know I have wrestled with in the past and continue to battle on a regular basis. Who are those people, and why do they seem so certain of their own place, of the value of their work, and of their intelligence? Career development in academe is dependent not only on how “smart” you are, but on your own assessment of your capacities and how your put that to work; and because we want to believe in “merit”, we often denigrate our own efforts and doubt ourselves even when we succeed (it was “luck”, or something else). The required confidence is harder to develop when you’ve spent your life not being outstandingly successful, and you’ve been assuming it was entirely due to your own deficiencies as opposed to other factors.

That self-interrogation of course informs the comparisons we’re (tacitly) encouraged to make between ourselves and others in grad school. We look at what other are doing, wondering why they seem to be “succeeding” when we’re not. Why do some people seem to be able to effortlessly afford that trip to the conference in San Francisco or Sydney or that three-month stint touring the Far East? Significantly, success in academe also depends on the capital you can invest in further professional experience, where additional available resources mean not having to take on two extra jobs to finance your conference travel (or pay the rent!), thereby losing time you could have spent on researching. Success, in the form of useful capital, builds on itself.

As someone who’s currently riding out my second large merit-based scholarship, obviously I have extremely mixed feelings about the concept of “merit”… on the one hand I represent, statistically, an aberration that should prove the effectiveness of meritocracy: a student without economic means who’s been able to get to the doctoral level, and to do it by winning awards for academic excellence. But sometimes all I see are the thousand other ways in which this story could have ended, the many times I felt like dropping out because I was so sick of being broke and angry and tired and stressed, and the others I knew who were smart and talented and dedicated and still didn’t win the scholarships I won, and who did leave, blaming themselves all the way. I tell myself I made the right friends, got the right advice, stepped into the right subject area at the right time. Surely these were the things that stood between me and a return to a past where I washed dishes for a living instead of marking undergraduate essays.

The line feels that slim–a paperwidth of possibility–one that can be “re-crossed” at any time, given the assumed tenuousness of my success. Because I will probably never feel as if I truly deserve what I have.