Want to play? Here’s a Higher Ed Media Coverage Bingo!—downloadable PDF.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from the recent events at UBC, it’s that silence can say more than words, whether you’re withholding information or telling someone else to keep quiet. That probably sounds obvious, but the university’s announcement of Arvind Gupta’s resignation—and its handling of the events that followed—reflect some problematic assumptions about who should be able to speak, when, and what should be said.
What was it that triggered UBC’s current public crisis? Gupta’s July 31 departure was announced publicly on August 7 in classic “Friday Afternoon News Dump” fashion: UBC published a news release, which was tweeted shortly after 4pm EDT. In a news release where roughly 50% of the text was devoted to celebratory prose about the incoming interim president (Dr. Martha Piper), UBC gave no explanation for Gupta’s resignation except that he had “decided he can best contribute to the university and lead Canada’s innovation agenda by resuming his academic career and leadership roles in the business and research community”.
Additionally, a Globe and Mail article was published around 5pm, containing interview quotes from UBC Board of Governors (BoG) Chair John Montalbano. Rather than clarifying the situation, this article only exacerbated the impression that the university hoped to bury the issue as quickly as possible. Gupta’s quoted comments—restricted by the NDAs that had been signed—were equally unhelpful, referring back to the university’s statement. Montalbano appears completely unfazed, stating “I don’t believe we will miss a beat”.
That article highlights what’s been so provocative about the UBC case, i.e. the “cone of silence” approach taken by the university’s administration, even as the BoG Chair seemed to have been saying quite a lot (more on this below). While there was a press release, it was immediately treated as an incomplete account because in the context of Gupta’s five-year term ending abruptly after only one year, the information UBC provided wasn’t “enough”. An (apparently) partial message suggests that there’s something to hide. This much should have been obvious at the outset, but UBC’s communication has remained unbendingly evasive; even their Twitter feed contained nothing helpful when I checked, beyond a single tweet with their press release on August 7.
Because of this suddenness and silence, public speculation began immediately. Why was Gupta resigning after only a year? Was it a health problem or some other personal issue? Was it a disagreement with the Board or opposition from senior administrators (the remaining ones, anyway)? The pressure of financial challenges? Gupta had no real experience in administration; was the position simply too much for him—or was he perhaps not living up to his promise? If it was the latter, one year seems like a pretty short trial period. If this was a “smouldering crisis”, it didn’t take long for the flames to be fanned—and it certainly wasn’t visible or predictable to everyone in the institution. UBC Faculty Association President Mark MacLean wrote in a public letter on August 10: “this news came as a complete surprise to me, and I have spent the weekend trying to make sense of it”.
UBC faculty members were among those who produced blog posts and columns offering their own interpretations of events (examples from the past few weeks include E. Wayne Ross, Nassif Ghoussoub, Stephen Petrina, Christopher Rea, James Tansey, and Charles Menzies). Which brings us to the second thread in this story. On August 9, Dr. Jennifer Berdahl—a full professor who holds the Montalbano Professorship in Leadership Studies: Women and Diversity in the Sauder School of Business—published a blog post about Gupta’s resignation, in which she described her “personal observations and experiences” with him. She placed these observations squarely in the context of her research on diversity and workplace dynamics.
Of Gupta, Berdahl wrote that “he exhibited all the traits of a humble leader: one who listens to arguments and weighs their logic and information, instead of displaying and rewarding bravado as a proxy for competence”; and that “UBC either failed in selecting, or in supporting, him as president” (a position she wasn’t alone in holding). More controversially, she described the culture of leadership at UBC as a “masculinity contest” in which Gupta did not fit, and where his strengths were not sufficiently valued.
Berdahl’s post soon came to the attention of BoG Chair John Montalbano, who went so far as to express disapproval to her in a phone call the day after it was published. Montalbano, who is CEO of RBC Global Asset Management, also happens to be the donor whose funds support Berdahl’s professorship. According to Berdahl, he chastised her for bringing negative attention to the Sauder School and UBC, describing her words as “hurtful” and “unfair to the Board” and repeatedly mentioning both the RBC funding and related conversations that he was having with other administrators. This was followed by further communications from Berdahl’s Division Chair; the Associate Dean of Faculty; and perhaps most ironically, the Associate Dean of Equity and Diversity. Their message was clear: the blog post had done “reputational damage” and was upsetting to a powerful donor who was also Chair of the Board.
Berdahl’s account of these experiences, which she posted on August 16, brought a whole new dimension to the UBC situation. What she described was an unequivocal breach of academic protocol, and it generated outrage far beyond UBC and beyond the group that had initially been concerned about Gupta’s resignation. It also changed the focus of the story and helped to further position Montalbano as the chief villain in it. Even those who were more sanguine about Gupta’s departure and/or had viewed Berdahl’s earlier post with skepticism, were happy to leap to her defence over an issue of academic freedom.
Berdahl’s experience has raised again a key issue with regards to the definition of academic freedom: should professors’ commentary be limited to their “area of expertise” or to what is required for teaching and research, or should it be applicable to more general matters of university governance? Even for those who think that comment should be limited to a faculty member’s research area, Berdahl’s position is unique this regard; her research is in fact about organizational dynamics. Surely then she is qualified to speak critically about the dynamics in her own institution, based on what she’s observed first-hand? The post states fairly clearly that Berdahl is speaking from her own experience and framing this through the theoretical lens that she uses in her work. This approach was of course criticised for a variety of reasons, but being critical of what someone said is not the same as telling them to stop saying it.
I wasn’t hugely surprised at the points Berdahl was making, because the gender issue here isn’t a new one. It’s a point I’ve seen raised, usually off-the-record (and not by women), during the course of my dissertation research. It’s something that Julie Cafley of Canada’s Public Policy Forum, who wrote a dissertation on Canadian universities’ presidential departures, is also pointing out as significant. Another factor to keep in mind are the gender dynamics of public expertise, which favour a particular performance of masculinity (one that intersects with perceptions relating to race). So is there not a connection between these issues and the points raised in Berdahl’s blog post on this topic? Why were so many people—university faculty included—so quick to dismiss the legitimacy and relevance of what she said, along with her right to say it?
For some people, the problem was the quality of the writing and the analysis in the post; it wasn’t written either with the rigour of an academic article, or the clarity of a post intended for a broad audience. Others disagreed with the conclusions indicated therein, which were interpreted as accusations of racism and sexism. But if the question here is whether the post was covered by UBC’s existing policies on academic freedom, to me it looks like the answer is “yes”.
That’s why, whatever Berdahl’s analysis pointed to, in his reaction to it Montalbano stepped over a line that would have been clear to anyone familiar with academic work and the policies that govern it. The outcome was that after denying the allegations, Montalbano still faced public pressure to step down as BoG Chair—which he did, on August 25. Former B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lynn Smith will “undertake [a] fact-finding process” on the incident, to culminate in a report by October 7. Meanwhile, UBC has provided no further information about Gupta’s resignation, which clearly hasn’t stopped major media outlets from publishing further commentary.
I can see at least two stories being told here: one of them is about accountability, and the other is about academic freedom. They’re both stories about the ethics of (crisis) communication—on the one hand, a major, sudden change occurred and not enough information was provided. On the other hand, when a faculty member wrote a public interpretation of that change, she was shushed by the BoG Chair and others.
Accountability is significantly about communicating with those who have an interest in the outcome of a situation. Even when there’s information that for legal reasons can’t be disclosed, there are ways of handling it appropriately. The rampant speculation (and subsequent calls for transparency) should have been entirely predictable given that UBC is one of the country’s top universities, that there was widespread publicity about Gupta’s appointment (and presidential searches cost money), and that the resignation happened after just 13 months. Those gaps left between expectations and actual communication were filled in with assumptions generated by context: that something very bad must have happened, since no-one could talk about it. Would things have turned out differently had the university taken a different path at the outset, or are the rules governing such situations inherently troubling for public academic institutions?
Academic freedom, too, is a communication issue as well as one of intellectual integrity; there’s a reason it’s so often conflated with “freedom of speech”. It’s what professors are saying—what they’re communicating and to whom—that’s often framed as a (political) problem, as was the case with Jennifer Berdahl’s blog posts. This reaction to her words only confirmed the initial impression that something worth hiding must have happened, since a faculty member was being pressured to tone it down.
What will happen next at UBC? In an August 9 post at Inside Higher Ed, Kris Olds wrote that “a crisis is a wonderful teaching and learning moment. Use it, and be prepared to see it used, for this is what a university is all about”. Only time will tell whether the lessons from this crisis will be put to good use. UBC will need to tend to reputational damage, but even more so, the damage done to internal trust within the university. One sign of how the university plans to proceed is provided in Martha Piper’s op-ed in the Vancouver Sun. Piper’s piece, whether you agree with her perspective or not, is probably better written than anything else produced by UBC representatives during the past month; but it’s clear that the university is trying to maintain the same upbeat tone that failed so badly at the outset. If (as some have argued) there’s a deeper, ongoing problem with the culture of governance at UBC, it’s going to take not only time but also some honesty to address it appropriately.
In light of the recent strikes at York University and University of Toronto, linked below is a list of some of the sources I’ve tracked down relating to PhD ‘demand’, the academic job market, contract faculty, and labour unions. The focus is on Canada – and it’s by no means exhaustive – but there are some references here from other countries as well. I’ve also tried to include a range of perspectives on the issues. Here’s the link:
Sources on contract faculty and academic unions in Canada.
I’ve had a short essay published in the Journal of Professional Communication. The essay is about the role of communication in organizational governance, and takes the university as an example of how new media are affecting organizations’ public relations practices and the kind of work that must be done by/through communication.
The journal home page is here, and my essay is in Volume 2, Issue 2.
The link to a PDF of my piece is here.
I wrote this post about the way the “skills gap” discussion is informed by the politics of funding and the increased amount of risk that universities are expected to manage. Here is the original post from March 27, 2013: Degrees of Certainty.
A recent post by David Naylor, the President of the University of Toronto, has been quite popular with academics and has generated a lot of commentary. Naylor makes the argument that Canadian higher education is dogged by “zombie ideas”, and he describes two of them: the first is that universities “ought to produce more job-ready, skills-focused graduates [and] focus on preparing people for careers”. The second is the idea that research driven by short-term application or commercialization, should be prioritized by universities because it provides a better return on governments’ funding investments.
I focus here on the first point, since in the past few weeks, in the run-up to the federal budget on March 21st, there has been a great deal of coverage of the alleged “skills gap” in in the Canadian workforce. Others have already done the work of summarising this issue, but as a quick recap, the argument goes something like this: business leaders and employers in Canada complain (to the government) that they cannot fill positions because candidates lack the skills. Yet Canada produces more post-secondary graduates than ever, and those grads are having trouble finding employment that matches their qualifications. So why is there an apparent “mismatch” between the education students receive, and the skills employers are demanding?
I don’t have anything to add to the debate about what is needed more–“narrow” skills such as those available from colleges or apprenticeships, or the “broader” education that universities argue they provide–because I don’t have the expertise to make an assessment within those parameters. However, I find the discussion interesting in terms of its context, including who is doing the arguing, and why.
For example, while the “skills gap” is assumed as a dramatic fact by Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, who “recently called the labour and skills shortage “the most significant socio-economic challenge ahead of us in Canada”” (CBC)–other experts, including Naylor, disagree that a skills gap exists at all. University graduates, they argue, are still making better money than those without degrees; and most of them (eventually) find jobs that draw on their skills–so why reduce the number of enrolments? Alex Usher of HESA has been generating a lot of commentary for this side of the argument as well; in the comments of one of his posts, his points are disputed by James Knight of the Association of Canadian Community Colleges.
Clearly the debate is more complex than “BAs vs. welders”, but this is the rhetoric being reproduced in numerous mainstream media articles. The average reader could be forgiven for finding this issue hard to untangle, based on the radically different accounts provided by media and policy pundits. Yet all this is discussed with much urgency, because post-secondary education is now being understood as a stopgap for everything the economy seems to lack–and economic competitiveness is imperative.
The politics of urgent “responsive” decision-making lie behind many of the arguments being brought forth. The skills gap, should it exist, has its political uses; agreeing that a thing exists means having to find ways of dealing with it somehow. In this case, a restructuring of university education is one solution on offer, including steering students away from the corruption of the arts and humanities and towards more suitable areas where demonstrable “skills” are in demand. Those doing the arguing have the means and “voice” to define the problem in a particular way; they can intervene in that debate and someone will listen. Each player has stakes in this game, too–the colleges plump for skills and job training over research investments, while the universities, and their advocates, claim a “broad” education is more appropriate; employers want graduates they don’t have to train, so the concern is with graduates being job-ready (for jobs that may not even exist yet).
Is this a kind of moral panic for Canadian higher education? That’s an important question, because such tactics are used to create a climate in which particular policy changes are favoured over others, both by politicians and policy-makers and by voters.
I think at the heart of the debate there are the problems of risk, certainty, and value (for money). Canadians have more of a “stake” in what universities do–often through directly paying ever increasing amounts of money for it–and so they care more about what universities are for. Governments have more of a claim now too, because of the idea that universities are magic factories where students enter undeveloped and emerge brimming with human capital (but it must be capital of the right kind).
The more we experience instability, the more we desire certainty–or at least some form of guarantee that if things go off the rails, we have other options. Yet there is no certainty about economic (or other) outcomes either from education or from non-commercial, “basic” research. Education and research give us no way to “go back”, either. For those trying to get a good start in life, there’s no tuition refund if we fail our classes or find the job market unfriendly at the end of the degree. We can’t wind back time and have another try. So the question becomes: what will guarantee our ability to cope with the future? A long-term focus on broad learning, which can (it is argued) help us to adapt to the changing structure of careers? Or a short-term focus, on skills designed to prepare students for specific, immediate positions?
This is why Naylor makes the argument that “the best antidote to unemployment–and the best insurance against recession-triggered unemployment–is still a university degree” (added emphasis). The word “insurance” speaks to the risk each person internalises in the current economy. Such risk has many effects, and one of them is heightened fear of the unknown: with so few resources to go around, will we get a “return” on what we invested, will our sacrifices “pay off”? What will happen if they don’t? As Paul Wells has pointed out, university advocacy organizations such as AUCC have pushed for universities to be recognised as providing economic benefits–since this is a logic that validates requests for further government funding. Yet it means universities are held captive by their own argument, since funding comes with the expectation of economic returns for the government. What if they cannot deliver on this promise?
The skills/employment “gap” is being blamed for a lack of national economic competitiveness; and it is a parallel to the ongoing “innovation problem” that Canada has in the research sector. But it’s the outcome, not the process, that’s really driving this debate. Never before have we been compelled to pay so much attention to the purpose and results of university education, and now that it seems to matter so much, we’re finding that “what universities should be doing”–or even what they already do–can’t be pinned down so easily; it can’t be mapped so cleanly onto a specific, measurable result. This is partly because what we now demand of universities is certainty, where serendipity used to be enough.
I wrote up a few comments about a conference held at OISE in February 2012, where the discussion of potential new universities in Ontario often returned to a recommendation that the province create teaching-focussed institutions. This separation of teaching and research doesn’t take into account – among other things – the lack of prestige attached to teaching work in universities. Here is a link to the original post from February 17, 2012: The economics of learning.
Last week on February 7, a conference was held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE) on the subject of the new universities (or campuses) that have been proposed by the Ontario provincial government. The conference included speakers who discussed various issues relating to the creation of the new campuses, and there was also a particular focus on ideas put forth in the book written by Ian D. Clark, David Trick and Richard Van Loon, entitled Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-Effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario. Though unable to attend the conference in person, I was able to watch it live from home via OISE’s webcasting system; since I’ve been following this issue for a number of months, I thought I might share some comments.
As conference participants discussed, there are many possibilities for what new “teaching oriented universities” might look like. The question is, what’s the context of their creation and what actual forms and practices will emerge? What kinds of “campuses” will these be, and what logic will drive their governance? For example, will they be like the liberal arts colleges of the United States where prestigious faculty engage in teaching while also producing research? My guess is that the answer is “no”, because this would conflict with the need to save money by significantly increasing teaching assignments per professor, which — as it turns out — is the goal.
One thing I felt was a bit lacking at the conference was discussion of the fact that in the broader “academic economy” teaching is simply considered less prestigious than research, and that means a hierarchy of institutions is likely to emerge. In a differentiated system, universities will tend be different, but not “equal.” What will be the implications of this for the new universities, for the hiring of teaching staff (for example)? Will faculty hires see these institutions as less desirable stops on the road to a “real” university job at a research-oriented university? I believe one speaker, Tricia Seifert of OISE, did address this problem by suggesting (among other things) that we should do more during PhD education to privilege teaching and to build the prestige of pedagogical work in the academic profession.
A related point is that in Drs. Clark, Trick and Van Loon’s model, there seemed to be an assumption that teaching quality operates in a simplistically quantitative way (behaviourism never really goes away, does it). A 4-4 teaching “load” (80% teaching, 10% research, 10% service) is not just about having the same number of students split up into smaller classes; juggling and planning for multiple classes is more work. As Rohan Maitzen pointed out on Twitter, teaching involves more than “just standing there” (many hours of preparation, for example).
To continue with the theme of prestige and the devaluing of teaching, what I noticed when I read the book excerpt is that the word “university” is going to be applied to the new institutions partly as a means of marketing them to squeamish students. The authors state explicitly that “every effort in Ontario to create a label that resides in between colleges and universities – such as “institute of technology,” “polytechnic university,” “university college” and the like – has failed to find acceptance and has led to requests for further changes.” Yet somehow “mission drift” — the tendency of universities to want to climb the ladder to a more research oriented status — must be prevented through government regulation and a strict mandate.
This is one reason why existing institutions may be disappointed if the think they will be sharing in the new expansion. What “new” means is not an extension of other campuses, nor a conversion of an institution of one kind into a different type (i.e. college into university); what’s desired is a “clean slate.” A likely goal is to save money by preventing the duplication of governance structures like unions and tenure, because these reduce “flexibility” and increase costs. This could lead to the 31% cost savings predicted by the authors, who nevertheless expect the new universities’ faculty salaries and benefits will remain competitive (my prediction is that salaries will be lower).
The purposes for building new teaching universities are not just pedagogical but also economic and political. Providing more access to postsecondary education is politically expedient and also matches the economic logic of the day, which is that building human capital for the knowledge economy can only occur through increased PSE acquisition. But as Harvey Weingarten pointed out at the OISE conference, campuses can’t be built unless there is government funding available for the purpose — and now we’re hearing that there isn’t any funding. I suspect that the release of the Drummond Report this week only confirms this, adding pressure to the process of imagining new teaching-intensive universities. It may now be even more difficult to ensure that pedagogical rather than just economic logic is what wins out.
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.
I presented at this conference last Friday with Dr. Grace Pollock, Alexandra Epp, and Danielle Martak. Our presentation was titled, “The Public Intellectuals Project at McMaster University: A Case Study in Social Media Use”. Here is a link to the Prezi we presented.
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.
A conversation in a second-hand clothing shop provoked me to write this post, which is about the ways in which undergraduates experience the university environment when they’ve arrived right from high school. I was reminded of how easy it is to take things for granted when we’ve been working in an institution for a long time. Here is a link to the original post from September 13, 2011: First year focus – understanding student choices.
September is upon us and with the beginning of another academic year comes a fresh crop of undergraduate students jostling their way into universities’ hallways and classrooms. As a researcher in postsecondary education who also teaches undergrads, I take a direct interest in the first-year experience. Whenever I have a teaching assignment with first-year students, I try to have a conversation with them about the decision they made to come to university, the factors that influenced their choice, and how their experiences in university compare to those in high school.
I thought of this recently when I had a chance conversation with a young woman working at a second-hand store where I was buying some summer clothes. We started chatting about the job and how she’d come to be living and working in town. I assumed she was a student at the local university, but as it turned out she had quit her BA at the University of Toronto and wasn’t sure if or when she wanted to go back. She spoke about coming from a family of artists, and how in hindsight her degree (in Art History) seemed more like the logical and familiar thing to do rather than an informed choice. I was reminded of my own experience, heading to university at age 17 to study studio art, but subsequently taking a break from higher education for several years.
As we talked, she described how overwhelming the experience of university had been, comparing it to the structured and planned environment of high school where “someone was always there” to tell you what you needed to do next, where to go, and why. Even students’ schedules were essentially planned out for them. University was overwhelming because “you could do anything;” there were so many courses and programs, to choose from, but “you don’t know anything about any of it.” Her impressions spoke to me of a lack of guidance and mentorship at that early and crucial stage.
For this student, high school had provided a structure and a coherence that made it navigable. The university was apparently limitless and chaotic, a freedom that came with an unexpected and intimidating level of responsibility as well. The safety of high school, an illusion of knowledge about knowledge itself, was like a rug pulled from under her feet.
Based on other experiences with young undergraduate students, I think this may be one illusion that (some) primary and secondary schooling perpetuates through its very structure: that knowledge is somehow unified and can be mastered by internalizing and reproducing information from the right categories at the right times, that it can be divided into navigable units and that its relevance will always be evident somehow.
Experience with teaching university students has led me to question the dialogue between secondary and post-secondary, which should involve high school teachers and administrators, students, and professors. There seems to be a continuing deficit on both sides of the educational fence. How many university professors are familiar with the high-school curriculum, and vice-versa?
Universities can do their part, using research to inform well-designed first-year programs. Many examples exist in Canada, such as McMaster University’s Honours Integrated Science program (iSci). The program is small, enrolling about 30 students in a cohort. They share a “home base” (a study room), as well as a specially-equipped teaching room, both located in the Engineering library. Students have close learning relationships with others in their cohort and with faculty and staff. They also complete an initial standard curriculum designed to provide a common foundation for the rest of the first year.
The downside of many such programs is that they’re still elite, catering to limited cohorts of students who are more likely to arrive well-prepared for university learning. One of the great policy problems for higher education is the extension of successful elements of elite programs to benefit all students in a massified system.
While we may not have the means (yet) to provide these kinds of elite program experiences to larger numbers of students, there are things that teaching assistants and faculty members can do to lessen the disorientation suffered by many undergraduates. We can try to connect course material to work they’re doing in other classes, and help them to identify their academic strengths and weaknesses. Most importantly we can show an interest in what’s going on for them and how they’re experiencing it, since this kind of help and attention can affect their eventual success at university.