Music for Deckchairs

"In shadowy, silent distance grew the iceberg too": an Australian blog about changes in higher education


Seriously, Mister Jones

The good or bad faith with which power is exercised is irrelevant; raising the question on these terms will not be effective. Power cannot be shamed into limiting itself in this way. It seeks to limit us.

Jason Wilson,  “Moderation, speech and the strategy of silence”, Detritus

You know something’s happening/and it’s happening without you/yes it is/Mister Jones

Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, this beautiful live version

I’ve been thinking a bit more about Steve Wheeler’s invitation to discuss whether jokes are a good way to promote discussion of serious topics, and I’m going to take him seriously for precisely one minute and add something to what I wrote yesterday.

Three reasons, all personal, why I wouldn’t make those jokes myself. First, since I’ve been writing about the relationship between illness and overwork, I’ve been contacted by people working in education from all over the map, all saying that they recognise in themselves or their colleagues some aspect of the neglect of self that this involves: the sense of panic, despair and exhaustion; the relationships stretched to snapping point; and sometimes full blown illness. They really do have their heads in their hands, like the photo Steve used of himself in his prank. And I have to say that those of us whose illness is physical, especially of the kind that scares the underpants off everyone around us, fare much better in terms of other people’s cheap jokes than those who are wrestling (often in secret) with mental health. Because mental health still fuels the metaphors of everyday life. It’s ground right into the language of joking around, and I really can’t imagine how it feels to have to navigate this.

Secondly, at the end of last year, when I was still flapping about like a bird that has flown into a plate glass window with “cancer” etched on it, I came across Francesca Milliken, who was just at that moment starting her own blog about her daily experience of living with clinical depression in its most depleting extreme.  I’ve followed her writing ever since, and I’m really a huge fan, because of the clarity and courage with which she lays out what she’s here to say. And that’s why jokes about clinical depression can’t sit well with me, because when you say it, I see this person. And this one. And this one.  And this one.

Thirdly, I’ve followed Audrey Watters since I first started writing online, for her frankly indispensable service to education blogging. Through her and many other women tech writers or activists, I’ve learned that joking about online threats to bloggers truly doesn’t work for me either. Because:

So for these three reasons, it just doesn’t seem to me that there’s a serious issue on the planet that’s worth trivialising what other people have to live with, when we have instead an opportunity to care for each other, and to speak without clutter about the fact that the things in Steve Wheeler’s post are serious.

Should this cramp Steve Wheeler’s style?  No, of course not. I’m not his mother.

But I now realise that what troubled me about his prank goes a bit deeper; it connects to the very odd political culture in Australia at the moment. So I’ve been thinking back to Jason Wilson’s beautiful essay on the proposed repeal of the 18C provisions in Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. These provisions set out that we have a high standard in Australia that makes it an offence to offend, insult or humiliate others on the basis of race. And now, with the considerable hubris of its thumping political majority, our new conservative Government is proposing that these amount to a sanction against “hurt feelings”—even though this suggestion has been robustly tested in law and found to be as daft as it sounds.

When I first read Jason’s essay last year, the bit that really stayed with me was this simple advice: power cannot be shamed into limiting itself.

It came back to me yesterday because it’s such a solid and intelligent caution against letting frustration be the compass to your reactions when dealing with conservative thought.  That’s one compass that will always be spinning, because it is in the very nature of privilege to be able to maintain a dizzying range of positions all at once.

And that’s exactly why privilege also cannot be shamed into recognising itself.

This is the painful lesson played out again and again in coordinated Twitter activism, for example. #notyourAsiansidekick, #CancelColbert, #destroythejoint: these campaigns build solidarity among the exhausted and frustrated, but rarely achieve reflection or change in the expression of privilege itself. In fact, mostly the opposite: they trigger a doubling down on the original whatever, often in the form of a patronising explanation of what was intended and how life woks, in case the sophisticated nature of privilege has somehow slipped by those who criticise its operation.

None of this is new, or personal. It’s the well established set of routines that continuously polish the dance floors on which privilege performs. When I read yesterday that Steve Wheeler, oddly enough choosing Bon Stewart’s own words from her comment on this blog, is prepared to “own the post and be accountable for it”, I found myself humming Bob Dylan.  And then suddenly I remembered a very old article by film theorist Laura Mulvey. In “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing, Do You, Mr Jones?” (1973), Mulvey riffed on the lyrics of “Ballad of a Thin Man” to rebuke a complicated pop art joke based on making the bodies of women into furniture — a joke that as it happens was recently reprised as some kind of racial satire, and then defended all over again. Because, you know, joke.

So none of this is new. It’s the platform from which conservative thought launches its banal, recurrent manifesto: the double-back-flip vision of privilege as victim. It’s how people for whom the dice of privilege have been loaded to win every game get to advise others to stay hopeful that this is not actually how things are. And this is how privilege continually serves up to others, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it in her outstanding essay on hope as the ruse of progressive thought, “the cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

So this is how privilege gets to feel responsible, heroic, misunderstood, and sorry for itself, all at once.

And at the moment, for some quite weird reasons, we’re seeing this dredged up conservative woundedness all over the place—in politics, in corporate leadership, in entertainment, and online.

To me, both Jason Wilson and Tressie McMillan Cottom are right about the practical mechanics of it. Jason Wilson talks about the strengthening of power through “pantomimes of accountability”, in a way that matches up to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s description of the “solicitors of hopefulness” policing the same agenda. Never having to say you’re sorry means that the privileged continually get to define just how much they’re willing to share, how much accountability is just enough, how much hope will do.

But even though Mister Jones is all around us, in recurring multiples like Agent Smith, there are signs of change happening without him. There are people everywhere writing back, stepping up, and giving their own human time to indicate that they care for each other, and will risk their own convenience to make a stand. (Looking at you, Bill Ryan.) And of course, these include all the people who wrote in good faith to express concern about Steve Wheeler’s apparent disclosures of trouble, those who missed his joke, to whom I just want to say: don’t change a thing because you really are part of something good, and we’re all here with you.

So there’s every reason this morning for optimism because there are so many of us ready to say: enough, we’re done with this. The serious fault lines of privilege aren’t between one online writer and another, one educated blogger and another. They’re the daylight between all of us and the people whose lives are being trashed by the global economy, by environmental damage, by incarceration, by the staggering cruelty of refugee camps, by preventable disease, by both underemployment and overwork, and by the sense that there is nothing the powerful are prepared to do about this beyond snarking at each other for the win.

And the repeal of our Racial Discrimination Act is now actively in the public consultation phase. Australian readers, you can write in and say what you think.



This is a short post, because I don’t know what to do with my sadness at a well-known educational technology blogger with a huge following, who’s so enamoured of his own popularity that he writes an April Fools farewell note to blogging, that references the personal impact of blogging on him in terms of hate mail, threats, and clinical depression, and then spends the aftermath passing on the supportive tweets he got from people who responded with concern for his wellbeing.

This, edtech, is our own tiny little version of the #CancelColbert satire moment.  The pressure’s on to get to the joke, to joke back, to be the first to spot the cryptic clues in the post itself and to not be fooled. 

Because of course all those people who did stop to comment on his blog, or send him kind messages on Twitter, now realise that they are the straight guys to this hilarious set-up: they are the fooled. Without them, the joke is a tree falling silently in a forest, but now the fooled are part of the spectacle. They are its very ka-thump.

Maybe you need to know Steve, to be a mate of his, to view this stunt with affection. Maybe you need to be male, or British, or something or other.  I can’t imagine.

But here’s the thing: like Dave Cormier, when I read the post I just got stuck thinking of the people I know who are on the blunt end of this foolish play, the people (interestingly, mostly women) whose blogging really is controversial enough to bring them threats, or those who have recently shown the extraordinary courage to write out in public — in front of their colleagues, their friends, their families, their bosses, their children — that clinical depression is the name for what they walk with every day. Every single day.

To these people, as to those of us writing with illness, the internet has been a place where we have been trusted to be dealing with this stuff simply because we say we are. There’s no other proof. And those who take the risk of showing kindness towards us have made an incredible difference to how we experience whatever it is we experience. We’re all frankly a bit amazed when someone is unmasked as having invented serious illness or loss to get attention online (not to mention cash), because that fabrication does something to the fragility of trust in these networks of concerned strangers that’s quite hard to repair. If you’re fooled once, you’re much less likely to trust the next stranger who asks for help.

And the result is that we become bystanders: people who look away when someone says that they are being harmed or threatened, when they say they are struggling. We become the people who rationalise their looking away as a healthy scepticism. Because, you know, we’re not fools.

So now I think I want to say to Steve: please just take a step back from your joke, and go read those bloggers who really do deal with trolls, or those for whom alcoholism and depression aren’t quite so backslappingly funny. Because it’s obvious that you get that satire has its limits, otherwise surely you’d have announced your April Fool retirement from blogging due to, oh, cancer, or your upcoming rape trial, or the death of a child.

See? These things don’t work, do they?

And for me, neither do the things you joked about.


UPDATE: On April 2, Steve Wheeler published a follow up post explaining his joke:

Of course blogging carries with it the risk of misunderstanding and even rejection, and some bloggers are the targets of those who overstep the mark and who are aggressive or even abusive. No matter who you are, there will be people who oppose you. Some bloggers do indeed suffer from depression and may even resort to alcohol or other substance abuse to escape from the pressure of sustaining their writing. Others are profoundly affected by harsh comments on their blogs. It’s not always a bed of roses. Anyone who is a public author must try to come to terms with such issues if they are to make any progress with their writing. Most of the comments I receive on my blog are very constructive and even those that disagree fundamentally with what I have written are generally presented in a firm but polite manner. Discuss: Is a ‘joke’ like this a valid way to promote discussion?

There’s really nothing I could add to this. – KB


For Leon Fuller

With students having increasingly busy lives, it is not always possible for them to come to campus or have the kind of intellectual life that was traditionally associated with university campuses. That is the reality of the modern university student but is only just becoming the reality of the modern university campus.

The Campus is Dead: Long Live The Campus

Indeed, our modern culture tends to regard trees as consumables, or ornaments that we can move or remove at will.

Do Trees Have Rights“?

In its series on the future of the university campus this week, The Conversation visualises the opposite of online learning as some kind of vanishing Hogwarts, illustrated very conventionally: a picture of one of Australia’s faux classical universities with its daft and out-of-place architecture, and its big spreading tree.

The older buildings at the university where I work look like a chain of multi-story carparks, and the new buildings like a particularly shiny technology theme park: corporate acronyms and industry partnerships monumentalised in brushed concrete and steel. And yet in survey after survey, when we’re asked about the three best things about where we are, we all chorus: the physical environment.

It’s true. The campus is something I find myself really missing in this year of time away from work.  Walking from modestly ugly building to really ugly building, I’ve been continually startled and impressed by the delicacy and detail of the ground-level planting, the just-rightness of the winding paths, the thoughtful interaction of seating, shade, water and seclusion that creates quiet places to think.

And above it all, the trees. We even have a tree walk, because the trees that provide all this shade (and natural cooling to many of the buildings) are locally appropriate species with little labels at their bases so that we can learn something as we walk about. Because of these trees, we also have birdlife, that birdwatchers come specifically to see. And as we rush from meeting to meeting, most of us will pause to watch a bower bird in the act of adjusting or decorating its bower; impatient and time-hungry drivers late for something or other will slow down as moorhens cross the road from one pond to the next.

This must drive the Vice Chancellor mad. Our green and growing environment, that actively produces all this contemplative dawdling, isn’t going to drive up our international reputation, because you have to be standing here to see it. But in thinking about why we don’t celebrate it more than we do, I wonder if this isn’t part of a larger problem that affects higher education more widely: that our performance metrics and ranking instruments are really bad at recognising indirect contribution.

We don’t promote people who get committee work done, straightforwardly and properly, so that universities operate as efficiently as they can. We don’t give awards to professional audit, governance or IT support teams whose very job it is to keep things ticking over so smoothly that we don’t know they exist. We don’t thank the academic colleagues who listen and ask questions and buy coffee when someone else’s article or grant proposal gets stuck in the delivery canal. And we really disrespect the army of casuals who make research output possible by showing up to teach in place of the hipster research superstars marketed to students on billboards and websites.

In the 1970s, feminist economists and historians argued that the contribution of unwaged women’s work in the home needed to be calculated into GDP. The case is straightforward: for wage earners to be out of the home, other work has to be done in raising families in safety, managing the home itself, and supporting the other institutions in the economy, including education. The pattern of workforce participation has changed since then, so that many of these services are now themselves outsourced to low-waged labour, but this has only reinforced the point: there is this everyday stuff that has to get done so that economic participation can focus on reproducing the future conditions for work.

And this all takes real human time, so it really matters that the undistinguished, uncelebrated domestic service of workforce participation is properly reckoned when we’re congratulating ourselves on productivity.

As it happens, the trees on our beautiful campus are also an indirect contribution from the seventies. They’re the living design and vision of Leon Fuller, a local curator of native species, who came to a “bare, featureless landscape” in 1975 and created what we have now from seeds he gathered himself:

Mr Fuller was appointed landscape supervisor at UOW in 1975, with the task of transforming the campus – a massive brief given the region’s diversity of vegetation. “The overall vegetation of the Illawarra is distinctive and trying to bring it down to one or two plant communities is not easy,” he said. “There’s a number of plant communities; there’s Illawarra grassy woodland, and Illawarra subtropical rainforest on the escarpment.”

As part of his UOW quest, Mr Fuller and his team made countless trips into the Illawarra escarpment bushland, identifying trees and gathering seeds that were propagated and planted on campus. Thousands of trees were planted in the six years he was with the university, a trend that continued after his departure.

Illawarra Mercury, “Field Guide to the Landscape We Love

Leon Fulller’s thinking ahead, so carefully, about environmental integrity is exactly the kind of invisible work that’s in trouble in Australia at the moment.  Our current Prime Minister seems genuinely to believe that logging is a kind of nature conservancy, a way of thinking about trees purely for their potential to become productive timber or to make way for mining or gas interests. And in the same way, the efficiency calculations tearing up our economy—including our public institutions—are making it thinkable that humans defined as unproductive can be pruned and uprooted, as if for their own benefit. Because, you know, dead wood.

But like any large organisation, a university is complex living ecosystem of human care and reflection. Some of this is inefficient by technical standards; because technical standards are very limited in their range. These standards are not yet developed to match the complexity of human interaction: the long term impact that we have on one another’s thinking, the way we sharpen one another’s skills, or even just the way we sustain each other’s confidence to go on. They really can’t see the trees for the timber they might produce.

And as the recruitment culture in universities speeds up because as Gianpiero Petriglieri smartly points out, we currently applaud the career trajectory of leaders who are globally mobile, there’s a risk of failing to understand that local history is what grounds a university in the place where it is, where its seeds were harvested and planted:

Nowadays, we move so often that we barely notice our trees, let alone knowing their histories and having our own stories intertwine with theirs. Our only chance to live with a mature tree may be if someone else planted one decades ago—and all the intervening landowners cared enough about that tree to allow it to continue to live and thrive.

Here’s to you, Leon Fuller.


Walking and learning

A meandering reply of sorts to Mike Caulfield, after walking with eight year olds

In becoming a patient—being colonised as medical territory and becoming a spectator to your own drama—you lose yourself. First you may find that the lab results rather than your body’s responses are determining how you feel. Then, in the rush to treatment, you may lose your capacity to make choices, to decide how you want your body to be used. Finally, in the blandness of the medical setting, in its routines and their discipline, you may forget your tastes and preferences. Life turns to beige.

Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body: reflections on illness

So I’m still thinking about why the experience of university work has made the transition to diagnostic evaluation quite a natural one for me.  Being an academic and being ill have a tremendous amount in common, it turns out.

The first time I was shown the software that calculates my life expectancy on the basis of the cancer markers I have—that’s driven by big data from the US because Australian data is touchingly too small a sample—among the whirl of WTF thoughts, I caught myself with this one: that looks exactly like the Moodle progress tracker bar chart.  The graphic representation of something like getting better matches the graphic representation of tasks completed in an online course for good reason: because we’re all trained to respond to incentivisation of our personal productivity, and we’re especially triggered into this by representation of deficit.  Look how badly you’re doing!  Do you need to talk to someone?

And of course, this then meshes in a particularly painful way with the culture of incentivisation in universities, so that someone looking at a fairly negative impression of her chances of living to retirement might find herself thinking: well, that’s not the first time I’ve appeared on the underperforming side of the chart.

My companion through all this is the very level headed Arthur Frank, Canadian sociologist and scholar of illness narrative. (His work was recommended to me by Richard Hall, to whom the hugest thanks for his continued activism on illness, productivity, technology and labour in universities.) Arthur Frank writes from the experience of heart attack followed by cancer and treatment, and he has helped me see how people who enter the discursive labyrinth of medical and diagnostic processing have a great deal in common with people whose labour is continuously subjected to output measurement.

Put simply, as a medical patient, you take a lot of tests.  Some of those tests show you to be failing.  Some earn you a little clap. Performance management of disease-as-failure is abrupt, brutal and often leaves very little room for you to make choices about how you would like to live and learn from the experience of being catapulted from the hamster wheel of work, social participation: just plain being a person.

And this isn’t only a metaphor. Universities themselves have so internalised the virtues of productivity that they can’t seem to help themselves with the cruelty of its application. Frank writes of his return to work after surgery and chemotherapy:

While I was in active treatment, the university where I work was most solicitous. … But as soon as treatment ended, the other institutional face appeared. Some of the same people now asked for the work I was supposed to have been doing. It didn’t count that I had been ill; in the annual assessment written about each faculty member, the time of my illness was described as showing a “lack of scholarly productivity.”

OK, if you’re an experienced university worker, did you really find this a surprising story?  I was talking about it yesterday to a colleague who came back from cancer surgery to find a “Dear Jane” email letting her know that due to her lack of scholarly productivity she had been deleted from a research group, presumably because she represented some kind of embarrassment to its illustriousness, or she might illegitimately consider herself the kind of person who could apply for a tiny crumb of funding.

This is how too many universities are working now, without a moment of self-reflection, because the rules of productivity are pervasive, and driven by the most powerful higher education decision-makers in our economy: government and business. And it’s not because people who are ill are treated this way that we have a problem, but because this is how everyone is treated: as a resource whose measure is its contribution to the institution’s competitive standing.

So, on this stony ground, what hope is there? This morning I read an extraordinary post by Mike Caulfield on the nature and scope of learning, and right in the middle of it he says: learning is not a thing, it’s a process of transition from one state to another, “like healing”.

But ultimately the only thing that truly holds  together ”learning to change a tire”, “learning how to think like a geographer”, “learning how to do long division”, “learning the importance of imaginary numbers”, and “learning to love again” is that all concern a change in capacity and behavior.

I haven’t come to quite the same conclusion that this means that teaching is like medicine, for obvious reasons, but I was thinking about this as I walked kids to school this morning. If you’ve ever watched 8 year olds walk a school route, you’ll know that their progress is circular, wandering, attentive and distracted all at the same time. They stop to pick things up. They run about in circles for a bit. They dawdle and notice things you miss. Adults and older children nag at them to do it properly, to pick up the pace and make orderly, timely, productive progress. There’s an implicit schedule which we think they should follow, so that everyone achieves the walking-to-school outcomes on time.

But suddenly I realised that what they’re doing is learning: they’re learning about their community by making tracks through it, remembering that yesterday there was a lizard here or a dropped bit of trash there. And this is exactly the point smart people like Patrick Masson and Mark Smithers have been quietly making about online learning and MOOCs: what really threatens the privilege of universities as regulators of approved learning is the internet itself, because this is where we all go to learn, to “make the path by walking”. (Update: I remembered Bon Stewart talking about this, and she has now helpfully reminded me where. It’s in a beautiful post on her blog, and she’s taking up a point from Horton and Friere.)

What MOOCs represent is a brand-driven effort to corral this massive, extraordinary, networked practice of wild, collaborative learning back from the open internet, and to return it to a stable, disciplined marketable state. That’s why MOOCs are disrupting precisely nothing about universities, nothing at all.  It’s why the rhetoric about MOOCs introducing unparalleled learning opportunities to out of the way places is such rubbish: learning isn’t something you deliver like a pizza. And it’s why the corporate brands (including your own university) have been so keen to silence the earlier history of rhizomatic learning that tossed up the MOOC acronym in the first place, so that now MOOC can mean anything you like so long as it advances your institutional brand in the international race for status.

But Mike Caulfield is absolutely right: learning isn’t a thing, and this is a very considerable source of hope for us all. Universities neither own it, nor have the capacity to manage its value in the market any more, except through the crudest and most destructive instruments. Their future is being changed, and the measure of a really good university in the future won’t be its standing in rankings, but its capacity to support and react to learning as an energising, self-directed practice, driven by curiosity and sustained by real, human time.

Just like healing.

Tangents: a learning conversation

Bon Stewart said it back in 2012: MOOCs are not disruptive in learning terms. Back then also Melonie Fullick was writing about education as something that couldn’t be bought and sold. In 2014 Jonathan Rees is walking the line on what’s coming in efficiency terms.  And if a manager near you is waving the Kool Aid flagon labelled “Drink Me for Flipped Classroom”, just have them read Jared Stein’s “Flipping Isn’t a Thing Apart“.  See, the internet: it’s a conversation among learners, with a memory. Crazy, isn’t it?


On impact

I know that there are people who actually enjoy sports but I never thought that there would be such a thing as a dodgeball enthusiast. Well, there isn’t really. There are just highly competitive people who use dodgeball to satisfy that need to win.

Dodgeball, an autobiography

When life is understood as a career, the resume becomes an extension of the body. Gaps in the resume are institutional stigmas. Since most of us have to work, it is hard for ill persons to resist accepting “productivity” as the measure of our worth.

Arthur Frank, At the Will of the Body: reflections on illness

Prayer flags

all the time in the world
(photo credit: Kate Bowles 2014)

Last week a colleague came to visit and asked, pretty forthrightly, “When this is over, and you know what you give a shit about, what will that be?”

It was the right time to ask the question. I’ve reached a point in this process that I think many people experiencing illness go through. After the truck-crash of diagnosis and surgery fades in intensity, and the long slog of treatment begins, recuperation involves moments where you stop and think, over and over: wait, what happened to my life?  It’s the first week of the Australian teaching year.  I’m reading emails about car parking and welcoming students and new colleagues. My friends are back at work.  And I am here at home, taking stock of surgery, chemotherapy and the long road up ahead.

Having cancer is like repeatedly walking into the middle of the room and forgetting why you came there. You can remember, more or less, what you were just doing moments before, but now you’re standing here: this is real. Only this has not yet explained itself, it doesn’t yet make sense. So you go back over what you were doing just before (“Remember we said we would, you know, before …”) and you try to rebuild some kind of hindsight identity working backwards from the moment of diagnosis, to what didn’t begin at that point, which is of course a way of not thinking about how it will end.

When did it start? How much of this challenging treatment is the consequence of that work-delayed diagnosis?  What future for me and those I love was decided in that year that I didn’t get checked out? These are the questions I’m trying not to ask physicians, because I truly don’t want to know the answers. I’m worried that knowing might compel me to send a career-limiting email about the very irritating tone of our university’s workplace wellness programs, that do absolutely nothing to address to the culture of academic overwork that cause people to miss health checks in the first place. (Global Corporate Challenge, I’m looking at you.  Your emails this week reminding me that it’s not too late for a fantastic burst of energy have been fantastically mistimed.)

But if there’s one thing I do now know, the question of “when this is over” can only refer to treatment, because cancer won’t be over. That’s not to dramatise my situation, but simply to say that a cancer diagnosis is a status change like becoming a parent. Even when your child moves out of home, even if your child dies, you are still a parent. That part never gets unmade.

So I’m returning to the question of how being a person with cancer might work, especially in the context of a fairly long time being a person who works in a university.  Conversations this week—including with Philip Nel who has a beautiful piece in Inside Higher Ed on why academics overwork—have made me think hard about what academic work and illness have in common, and why this matters. It’s not that academics are unique in overworking in the current economy, but that there are structural incentives to our overwork that are fairly peculiar, and they’re matched by our coping practices that on most days amount to a weird co-dependency with a system that can no longer afford to run itself. Nel’s covered most of them, in my view, but I just want to add one that I think is becoming very important.

We overwork because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry.

The cruelty of this shaming is that it passes itself off as supportive collegial celebration of the heroic few; it’s hard to call out precisely because it looks like a good thing. It’s rampant in internal messaging (newsletters, all staff emails) that continuously reinforce the institution’s strategic mission by high-fiving those who win the prizes. It’s the self-justifying logic of casualisation, creating a vast second-tier of precarious and under supported university work for those who don’t get the real jobs. And it’s the immense project of research quantification, that crowds out practices of thinking, collaborating, listening and sharing in the name of picking winners and hothousing them because ultimately they pay off.

Being shamed isn’t the result of failing or refusing to participate in this system; it’s the result of being willing to supply your labour to enable competitiveness to work at all. Because there have to be losers, for there to be people who win.  (As Cate Blanchett put it so beautifully, “the world is round, people.”) For the 20% of ARC Discovery successes to have career valency, there have to be a very large number of people who calculate that it’s still worth their time falling into the 80% who fail.  To understand why we go along with this, and trash our physical and mental health in the process, you really need to read the literature on why people buy lottery tickets, and how they understand their participation in something with such a tiny prospect of success.

So I was thinking about how this deficit-driven measurement of value at work prepared me so well for being the subject of medical diagnosis, when I read yesterday a thoughtful discussion of the current culture of rankings-driven professorial recruitment in Australia, and the way that universities recognise whether their staff have value or not. And this is how it started: “An academic once told Third Degree that a failed academic was one who retired as a senior lecturer. A successful lecturer would have at least made it to associate professor.”

I’m a senior lecturer. You do the math. The tenor of this comment, and presumably the discussions at the university executive strategic retreat described in the article, imply that if I had any kind of professional integrity at all, any scrap of loyalty to the stated goals of my institution, I’d be offering to step outside the tent and take some time coming back.

But actually, I find this very liberating. Whatever it is I’m going to find I care about, I do so with the considerable freedom of being marginal to the university’s sense of itself.

So on that note, here’s a thing I care about. This week we opened CASA, an online home for those affected by casualisation in Australian universities. My colleague in this is a cultural geographer, and we both care very much about practices of belonging and hospitality in higher education. So we made a home for people to come together, and think, and share ideas for how this situation could be made less scarring for all concerned. I care about giving my time to this, and from the response and support we’ve had, so do lots of other people. We haven’t won a competitive grant; we haven’t published in a top-ranked journal. But we care about impact, and in this case, the human impact of our dodgeball culture is something we’re ready to call out.

All are welcome to join.

A few good things

Philip Nel’s essay “In Search of Lost Time” in Inside Higher Ed is accompanied by further reading and links to the pieces he cites, on his own blog, including a piece that deserves to be read over and over: Miya Tokumitsu’s “In the name of love“, originally published in Jacobin Magazine in January.

His piece has been covered, from opposite ends of the academic work spectrum, by Overworked TA (“The underbelly of putting yourself last“) and Ferdinand von Prondzynski (“Recognizing hard work in higher education“).

Richard Hall has provided considerable extension to all of this today, in “On academic labour and plutonomy“.


History’s gifts

My painting, my Dreamtime, nobody own it for me, nobody can stop this history painting. When I die, young people gotta take it over. That’s why all over the world we meet up, talk together and give history to one another.


It’s late at night in the first week of a Coursera/Duke MOOC on the future of higher education, and we’re rattling through a remake of Robert Darnton’s history of four great information ages. This big history marches forward with such conviction and pace that we leap over most of the 20th century in a single bound, from mechanised printing straight to the global internet. You might think the business histories of photography, radio, film and television would be models for the kind of education we have now, but it looks like literary history has it covered. OK, then.

Cathy Davidson calls this a “purposive and activist history”, learning from the past in order to change the future. I’m not sure who the “we” of this history might be, but I’m hearing “we” a lot. Sometimes it points at the people who share the political or industrial history of the US, or the slightly wider developed world; and sometimes we are all accommodated inside history’s generous marquee, because, you know, diversity.

And then suddenly there he is, on screen for less than a minute: an Aboriginal man in worn military uniform, a barefoot woman wrapped in a blanket sitting on rocks behind him, and grog bottles in a basket at his feet. The video is talking about “these ancient Aboriginal tribes in Australia”, to demonstrate something about oral cultures and their capacity to remember complex stories of kinship, which will later reattach to a thought about basketball fans and their ability to remember stats. I feel a kind of panic: wait, did we just go there? And sure enough, we’re right at the heart of the terrible history of empires built for trade behind a facade of civilising pedagogy, only now “we” seem to be re-enacting exactly the encounter that I’m looking at on my laptop screen.

There’s no sign in the end credits as to what this image is or why it’s there; and a question to the forums gets no response because, you know, forums.

So I ask again on Twitter, and this time Jade Davis who I follow and respect highly for her work on digital knowledge cultures, does her own search and finds it. It’s a 19th century etching of Bungaree, an Aboriginal man who was well known in and around Sydney during the early years of the colony. The image was made by travelling colonial artist Augustus Earle, who had finally made it to Sydney in 1825 after travelling through Europe (“sketching antiquities, Moorish ruins and batteries”), touring the US and South America, and being stranded for several months in Tristan da Cunha. The image doesn’t tell us much about Bungaree, his wives or the skilful mediation he practiced between the colonial administration around him and the other clans living around Sydney at that time, because Earle couldn’t have grasped the complexity of those things. But it probably gives a reasonable account of Earle himself, and his sense of what audiences in London and Sydney wanted to know: it’s touristic, entertaining, and prurient all at once, while keeping Bungaree, his ironic costuming and his confronting household arrangements at arm’s length.

Later I asked Cathy Davidson on Twitter how this image had been chosen to illustrate a point about communication among Aboriginal people in the pre-contact period when in every visible detail, it’s about the opposite: the cultural collision between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal institutions and expectations in the colonial era. In a long forum post she reflected on the purpose of the lecture itself, and said that as the image was “offensive” without contextual explanation, it would be removed. And then when pressed a bit, she explained how the mismatch had been set up in the first place.

Because Coursera is for-profit, the licensing of images is extremely strict because one needs Creative Commons images but for a for-profit company.   This was the only image those who were adding images were able to find. We added images because it was thought that those who were non-native speakers or not familiar with my American accent would find the lectures easier if proper names were spelled out and images were used to illustrate non-familiar material.

I respect this candour. But removing the image just confirms who gets to deploy authorial entitlement here: who decides, and who is decided for. Bungaree gets patched in to illustrate the non-familiar, and then in the name of cultural sensitivity gets deleted again. And I’m still curious about the process that went through several steps without anyone noticing anything odd. Finding this image, settling for it, not feeling any need to explain it: all this feels like a kind of hubris about world culture that isn’t exclusive to MOOCs, but is certainly something about powerful institutions that MOOCs have exposed to a wider audience.

Earle’s encounter with Bungaree is a good metaphor for what’s happening as higher education becomes more entrepreneurial. Like the other colonial artists vagabonding about in the tropical south at this time, Earle was using his professional skills and social position to sell a particular account of the world back to itself, on behalf of an imperial power scrambling for land in competition with others from the global north. However he conceived of himself as an artist, his work operated within a purposive, activist project that encouraged investment in further exploration, the exploitation of new resources, and ultimately the creation of new markets. He wasn’t particularly accurate or insightful about Bungaree, but he didn’t have to be—he simply needed to frame him in this way to support a simplistic view of the diversity that would become the operating system (literally, in terms of racialised labour) of the colony itself.

Humanities scholars who join the race for global audiences using MOOCs as their platform need to ask the hardest questions about repeating the patterns of colonising pedagogy as edtech philanthropy. At the moment I can’t see how LMS-style platforms that are instructor-led could make space for the sharing of history on equal terms that would genuinely change the way global education works—although they can certainly support a limited kind of crowdsourcing of content that could be mistaken for something bolder. Nor is there evidence that the CEOs currently talking up the philanthropic and democratising potential of MOOCs want to see even a thimbleful of critique of the way prestige operates in higher education.

But I agree with Laura Czerniewicz at the University of Cape Town that simply saying no to whatever we mean by MOOCs isn’t the best step for those of us in other places. We need to work together to understand how hype around online courses accelerated the pace of innovation, and now that everyone’s calming down, we need to look at the options this has given us all for talking together across national and regional boundaries, without waiting for the powerful to lead.

Two notes

The quote at the top of this post is from the Aboriginal cultural historian and artist whose work is the subject of a beautiful short film and cultural history lesson, Too Many Captain Cooks, made in 1988.

Professor Cathy Davidson took a great deal of time and care in considering these issues from her perspective in her Coursera forum post “Race, Racisim, Representation and Alternate Timelines”.  Jade Davis, PhD candidate and Duke participant in the class to which this MOOC is attached, found the image and did the same on Twitter.  I learned a lot from their responses, and I appreciated their willingness to take this criticism seriously.


What you have when you don’t have tenure

Over the holiday period there’s been a flare-up among US higher education bloggers, that began with important questions about the miserable process of tenure-line job searches conducted at big annual conferences (do candidates really end up sitting on the bed in front of the search committee? Good Lord), and jumped from there to whether those currently tenured are doing enough to change the system that gives them their privileges. Understandably, tenured US bloggers wrote back, most substantively agreeing that university work is broken, and pointing out some of the reasons other than tenured privilege that higher education can’t afford to pay its staffing bills properly.

For those of us in other places, where neither hiring nor tenure work in the same way, it’s been like visiting someone else’s family for Christmas dinner and watching them fight. Every old thing gets raked up. Seething alliances form. Insults are defensively reexplained and stuff gets overstated. Once there’s a crowd, reactive escalation becomes its own self-sustaining energy. So then tone-policing becomes a thing, a penalty dive, in much the same way that “political correctness” was used by Australian conservatives in the 1990s: claiming to be silenced in order to silence others back.

Something that Australians would recognise is at work here: the art and tactic of sledging (which has nothing to do with snow). Sledging isn’t just there to unsettle your opponent, but to build solidarity among the team dishing it out. Sledging is a public test of team loyalty and commitment to the cause. Whose side are you on anyway? Whenever critics of sledging say that that it’s gone too far and is tipping into bullying, and indeed when it does evident harm to some of those on the receiving end, sledgers amp it up a bit while disavowing it in the same neat move. It’s just a game, and off the pitch we’re all mates.

Social media sledging in the current climate is tangling with the ways that universities (and governments) are mobilising to minimise critique from higher education workers, by widening the definition of inappropriate speech online to include anything that brings the institution or its brand into disrepute.  And to this powerful audience, some of the obvious strategies for breaking up this brawl while clawing back more money from university staffing are already on hand. So if we want to get beyond sledging and make workplaces worth applying to, really we need to try to think about these other options and familiarise ourselves with what they might mean.

First: outsourcing. Universities are generalist institutions made up of lots of little divisions that do different things, and academics are often not aware how many of these are already outsourced to specialist providers.  We could be better at sharing administrative services; even research time is able to be lent so that cross-institutional teams can function. But in teaching, the idea of outsourcing was hushed until MOOCs blew it out of a big trumpet. (The exception is LMS contracts; and even then few academics get to find out much about the vendors that they’re partnered with, because that partnership is sequestered within a specialist bit of the institution, and sometimes actively covered up with in-house support.)

So academic work itself remains the least outsourced part of the institution’s activity, and this could change. Public universities could run on outsourced online labour quite straightforwardly—other major corporations do, as do MOOCs, and many private education providers. Casualisation itself is already both outsourcing and sharing, but it’s still relatively costly compared to how cheap it could be if it was unbundled and the cheaper bits put out to tender. Of course this work then wouldn’t go to those who are currently trying to find local employment in higher education, because there will always be cheaper sources of piecework labour in other states or other countries, just as there are in other industries. So this wouldn’t create more just employment, but it would save money.

The second option is potentially more attractive to people who want to work in higher education: remove tenure and make universities like other sectors, where security of employment is based on continuation of demand for what you do, matched to your continually tested capacity to do it better than the next person.  This is exactly what life on the open market is like for car workers, basketballers, miners, IT workers, business professionals and farmers, not to mention journalists, artists, and people who make cricket caps.  Demand for what you do can change, and someone younger, fitter, taller or cheaper than you can offer a better deal to your employer.

So if you’re sitting on a CV that’s more impressive than someone currently in a tenured position, maybe this would work in your favour. And maybe the younger, fitter, taller, cheaper person would never come along to replace you either.

As it happens, this one’s also already here, because the underlying bargain also favours the employer. Many Australian universities have in their three year contract with their workforce the capacity to redeploy or retrench academics if the discipline market shifts, or technology makes a difference in very unexplained ways, and it’s no longer in the business interests of the organisation to commit to the expense of someone’s permanent salary. This is what makes the culture of continuous departmental restructure so serious. While universities shuffle their salary commitments around the disciplines to optimise their ranking performance, academics now also need to imagine remixing their expertise quickly to be something else if that’s the way the wind blows—which is to say that expertise itself has already been redefined as a barrier to flexibility.

It’s a high risk strategy for both employers and elite performers, who are bought in at the expense of an international search, and then bought out of governance and/or teaching so that they can bring in research funding. But if demand trends away from them, then they can be difficult to redeploy, because it turns out that universities are within rights to argue that a senior academic can’t simply be plonked in front of first-year undergraduate students to do generalist teachingIn a very recent judgment, the Australian Fair Work Commission has decided in favour of an Australian university that:

A category E professor is a far more expensive employee for the School than a Lecturer A or B employee. The retrenchment and redundancy provisions of the Agreement are objectively intended to allow the University to address commercial imperatives arising from changed business circumstances. A practical approach to the construction of the Agreement favours a conclusion that does not oblige the University to retain that far more expensive employee to perform work that can be, and is presently, performed by significantly less expensive casual employees in the Lecturer A or B classification. [emphasis, as they say, not in the original]

This whole judgment is painful to study. At its heart is the story of three real people fighting unsuccessfully to keep the jobs they signed up for, and a union fighting alongside them; hidden behind this are all the stories of their significantly less expensive colleagues whose terrible working conditions have become the very low-lying marker in the struggle for fair work in sustainable universities, and whose situation could yet get worse under MOOC-driven disruption and tech-supported unbundling of work.

The judgment is clear on the climate for thinking about security of academic employment in Australia; and shows how little impact we have had on assumptions about the time it takes to teach conscientiously, patiently or well, especially where students may be underprepared or poorly supported.  It differentiates between the value of contact hours based on an individual’s salary, and by these apparently reasonable means finds it appropriate to service first-year teaching at the lowest possible cost, which is precisely how casualisation is endorsed as a strategically good response to “commercial imperatives.”

So if you still really think that people who talk about structure are avoiding the struggle for fair work and turning a blind eye to humans harmed by it, or that it’s possible to separate the struggles of the academic precariat from the management of those on salary, then read this judgment closely. Because this is the court of opinion where real power is at work, and where the structure is already being redesigned.

Big thanks to Stephen Matchett (@SRMatchett) for daily higher education reporting in Australia. His Campus Morning Mail is where I first read about the judgment discussed here.


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