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


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Whatever it takes

“We will do whatever it takes to make Medicare sustainable … If we don’t, with an ageing population, we will find ourselves in 10 or 20 years with a system that will collapse under its own weight.”

Peter Dutton, Minister for Health,  The Australian November 27

With things in the world as they are, two things to celebrate, and Australian health care reform.

First, something really great: the women of Elcho Island mentioned a couple of posts ago succeeded in their crowdfunding campaign, and can now put in place their plan to address some of the nutrition and health issues that contribute to chronic preventable disease in their own lives and families, under their own community leadership.

In the same week, our Federal government—the government that currently has care of the Australian public health system on our behalf—outlined Cunning Plan B for their own bit of crowdfunding.

The plan now is to reduce the amount of funding to GPs by $5 per visit, an amount that GPs can either choose to pay for themselves or shift onto patients. This saving to government will be still not be invested back into Medicare itself, anywhere, because it’s still going to be harvested into a national medical research fund. That’s the crowdfunding part.

There are some other modest improvements in the new copayment proposition—especially the sudden insight that pathology collectors who spend all day working alone drawing blood in centres that say NO CASH ON PREMISES can’t actually collect cash on those premises.

And plans to make it mandatory for GPs to collect a co-payment from people under 16 or on concession cards have also been parked. As Health Minister Peter Dutton put it to leading Australian television journalist Leigh Sales this week, the focus has narrowed to people who could pay more, but don’t:

And we believe the people on higher incomes, people in your situation or mine, that we do ask a $5 co-payment, but that we haven’t mandated it.

OK, let’s not muck around here. People in either Peter Dutton’s situation or Leigh Sales’ situation aren’t reference points for the general Australian population, income-wise. So this remark deserves a bit of attention.

Because this is still a health policy shift that is not primarily designed to improve health outcomes. As furious GPs and community health organisations across Australia have been pointing out, the impact on lower income users and already vulnerable communities will continue to be far more serious than on anyone like Peter Dutton or Leigh Sales.

The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, for example, put it bluntly that this is still a proposal to defund the services that are trying to fix Australia’s existing problems of health equity:

“Aboriginal people are not overusing services, they are underusing them. Adding a financial barrier like a co-payment will not help reverse this trend.

“To close the gap there needs to be every incentive in place to get Aboriginal people to have check ups, to see their doctor, to attend their follow up appointments and attend to their health needs.

“The co-payment undermines universal health care and targets the wrong end of the system. It is simply poor health policy.”

If it’s not good health policy, what is it? Apart from funding the hypothetical Australian cure for cancer, Cunning Plan B isn’t even really aiming to fix a current health funding problem, so much to raise fears about system load in the future that the minister insists we should prepare for now. (This is from a government relentlessly selling prosperity in the present because even “what might happen in 16 years time” is too far ahead to imagine in terms of climate impact. So there’s that.)

But there’s something else going on with all this price signalling, that’s not at all subtle, and is much more interested in the dog-whistling of the past than any risks posed by the future. Governments commonly use price signalling in a disciplinary sense, to stop people doing something. Taxes on alcohol and tobacco fall into this category. Price signalling in relation to GP visits is an attempt to reframe healthcare needs as part of a generalised state of moral co-morbidity, interacting with other symptoms of individual failure to shape up to the demands of being a model citizen in a growth-focused economy.

It’s this idea of health as something that you fix by not visiting the doctor that hitches the GP co-payment to other measures being proposed in the current reform climate, and it’s why Australian higher education really needs to study the language of responsibility versus entitlement in which it’s being haggled over in public. In other words, it’s a huge clue to an effort to turn Australia back towards a time when we celebrated individuals and their ambitions over the wellbeing of their communities, and lived with ourselves by stigmatising those for whom the playing field was a mess of potholes from the start.

But we don’t necessarily think this way any more. Doubts creep in. The vision of people crashing their boats on our shores and drowning right in front of us, and the terrible conditions under which we then hold them indefinitely along with their kids, and people around the world shattered by trying to hold their families together in the face of unimaginable catastrophe just because they are where they are, and the total mess of climate change that even the biggest of polluters are rapidly trying to fix, and people all over the place taking to the streets in protest—all these things have made a difference to the way we think about who has what.

The result is that we haven’t reacted as expected to the reform program before us. As new Guardian columnist Jason Wilson (that’s the second piece of good news) put it so well this week in an outstanding piece on the current effort to put lipstick on the budgetary pig:

But another problem with “resetting” is that the current crop of Liberal MPs – a much more right wing collective than even the Howard majorities were – can’t really comprehend the belief that their budget measures were unfair. Despite Abbott’s well-known Catholicism, he shares the secular-Calvinist presuppositions that animate his party, and provide the core belief of the English-speaking right: namely, that just as the rich deserve their wealth, so do the poor deserve their fate.

Code-phrases like “personal responsibility” express the belief that those who have no job, cannot provide for their own healthcare expenses, or cannot fund their own retirement lack virtues that more successful people possess. Economic values – efficiency, the necessity for “price signals” to deter the undeserving – merely give it a contemporary gloss. It’s possible to stoke the outrage of a minority of Australians with talk of dole bludgers and queue jumpers, but the failure of Abbott’s attacks on the most vulnerable shows that Australia is not at heart a Calvinist nation.

I think he’s right; this is a government that simply cannot stop itself from reaching for the ideological condiment when they’re serving up reform. That’s why we have an out of the blue mention of “six minute medicine” in this policy, for example. It’s a healthcare myth that’s been around for a long time and has already been debunked, but it’s back now because it’s an attempt to smear general practitioners as a whole, to whisper to us that without government regulation they’ll shuffle us all out of the door as quickly as possible, before whisking away to the golf course.

It’s the worst kind of insinuation designed to break down trust between GPs and their patients, to tell us that the government is on our side as consumers, and the people to whom we’ve entrusted our health are not. This is the reality of  “whatever it takes” healthcare reform: it’s sly, divisive, and unconvincing, and I can’t imagine how tough it must be to suddenly be the target of it.

So this is really an end of year thank you to the GP who takes care of me as a public health cancer patient and looks after my whole family, and to all her GP colleagues and their professional staff. We are so grateful for everything you’ve done for us.

Hang in there.


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“Wider lessons”

There’s weeping. And then there’s anger.*

For a year, Richard Hall and I have been tracking the ways in which higher education has become an anxiety machine, fumbling our way through this together using the metaphors of cycling, hamster wheels, technologies of pressure, instruments of shame.

We’re not alone in thinking any of this. (See especially Melonie Fullick’s sustained critique of productivity from the perspective of mental health, the worm at the heart of academia’s vanity culture.) The rankings instruments that drive institutional competitiveness have harmonised with the individual will to compete and celebrate the results of winning, without ever calculating the human cost of not winning, and the entire structure is now doing this:

Put more simply: throw together a crowd of smart, driven individuals who’ve been rewarded throughout their entire lives for being ranked well, for being top of the class, and through a mixture of threat and reward you can coerce self-harming behaviour out of them to the extent that you can run a knowledge economy on the fumes of their freely given labour.

They will give you their health, their family time, the time they intended to spend on things that were ethically important to them, their creativity, their sleep. They will volunteer to give you all of this so that you can run your business on a shoestring, relative to what you intend to produce, so that you can be better than the business up the road. They will blame themselves if they can’t find enough of this borrowed time—other people’s borrowed time—to hand over to you.

Just wait while I send this email. Start without me. I’ll be along in a bit. Do you mind if I don’t come? 

They will do this at all levels of the career, even if you pay them by the hour at a real rate that disintegrates to something approaching casual retail work once you factor in all the things they’ll have to do on their own time to get the job done well. They will do this especially if they’re also trying to run alongside the speeding train that might represent their future career hopes.

Some days they will also drive each other for you. They will whisper about each other, and turn a blind eye to each other,  and not quite find the time to act on their own secret critical thinking about any of it. They will also surreptitiously maintain each other through care and coping practices and shrugs in the corridor and exchanged glances and raised eyebrows in meetings and Friday drinks that become chronic, secretive drinking problems so that they can get some rest without writing emails in their heads at 3am.

In fact, if you get the scarcity, intermittency and celebratory settings for occasional reward just right, then the toxic alchemy of hope and shame will diminish their capacity for solidarity, and they will keep the whole thing going for you, in the name of commitment, professional standards, the value of scholarship, academic freedom, the public good of educational equity.

But I love teaching. I love my students. I love my research. I love that I get to work from home on Fridays. And Saturdays. And Sundays.

Until they don’t. Until they can’t.

This week, an email is circulating that seems to have been organised to go out with a degree of aforethought, by a senior UK academic who has died after being put on performance management for not meeting extraordinarily demanding grant funding expectations. He was 51.

The university concerned are reviewing their procedures. They’re even having a think about “wider lessons” to be drawn from this unfortunate turn of events.

Is it about one bad manager, at one particularly bad university? Is it about the culture of one place, all by itself, some unique sinkhole of shame into which one life has fallen? Can that one university review its procedures and its management training, and encourage the rest of us to move on to the next bit of news?

As you were. Nothing to see here.

Here’s my thought. This is only how it will turn out if we all agree that this is an OK way for rankings impact to be seen as good.

An alternative is for us at a broad level of professional solidarity to perform some version of putting our bats out.

So what I will do is this. It’s a little personal pledge and I’m putting it here to remind me.

Whenever I hear the senior management of our university talk about rankings, competitiveness or performance I will tell someone about this case.

Whenever I hear our government say that Australia needs a more competitive university system, I promise to think about this person instead.

Whenever a colleague is being talked about in my hearing as unproductive, I will stop what I’m doing and remember that this person who worked in the same profession as me took the action that he did.

Whenever someone uses the word “deadwood” to describe something other than actually dead wood, I will ask them if they heard about what happened here.

That’s all we have. But if we agree to mind about this together, it really is not nothing.

Some days hope is really very difficult to sustain.

Update

UK blogger The Plashing Vole, a beautiful writer, also has now written about this.

Chris Parr has written about this for the Times Higher Education, and quotes in full the emails that were sent to and from the professor in this case. Nominally this finesses the situation to explain that the process was at the informal review stage prior to full performance management. But the full tragedy of university processes, their self-regarding justifications, and the practice of individual compliance with them is on the starkest display in this correspondence. There are no words.

* Update 2

Richard Hall has raised a question with me that I think is really important, that I’ve been thinking about all day too. It speaks to the issues also raised by public reaction to the deaths that have recently attracted so much attention in Ferguson, and in Australian cricket.

At the heart of these complicated moments, there are people much more directly and profoundly dealing with loss than any of us sitting on the bleachers with our heads in our hands.

There’s a strong case for appreciative restraint at these times. How would I want the feelings of my own family or friends to be taken into account if something like this happened to me? Because what academics all over the shop are saying is that we recognise these conditions and demands to be very widespread, and we recognise our own vulnerabilities in the face of them. So it could be me, because it could be any of us. (And in fact, for me this piece is also about colleagues I know and care about, whose careers have similarly been derailed in higher education’s currently brutalising audit culture.)

This is why for me it isn’t about only one place, one terrible loss, but it’s really about the institutional thinking and the individual going along with that together create the conditions under which productivity is narrowed to particular kinds of outputs, particular kinds of fundraising success only. This is thinking that I’ve been doing all year, about the kinds of harm that are experienced every day, by so many people in university culture as it is presently set up.

But there are people for whom this loss is personal, and I am not one of them. So all day what has worried me is that if this was my loved one’s name repeatedly being handled by strangers—however respectfully, with whatever level of concern or admiration—I might find that in itself very painful to live with. What happens to those who lost you in a private sense, when your name suddenly becomes talismanic to a much wider public?

Thinking this through I have for the moment redacted quite a bit what was written here. I have taken out the name of the person concerned because on reflection I think there’s something to be said for letting a person’s name belong first and foremost to the people closest to them. I have also corrected the too-hasty characterisation of the problem as research insufficiency when it’s more accurate to say that the issue involved unbelievably high threshold expectations for grant funding.

This bit of redacting relates to something non-Indigenous Australians like me have had the privilege of learning about from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have very strong cultural protocols against general use (especially by the media) of the name of someone who has passed. I’m not claiming kin with Aboriginal culture at all, or the same reasons for doing it. I’m just aware that this has always seemed to me like a gesture that could be made in other circumstances.

So I’ve rarely edited anything much on this blog after it’s gone out but I’ve substantially edited this one. And yet I am grateful actually to know the name of this person because I really am going to continue to mind.

– KB


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Showing up

Go son, go down to the water / And see the women weeping there
Then go up into the mountains / The men, they are weeping too

Nick Cave, “The Weeping Song

1.

It’s a day for weeping, as it turns out. All over the place, so much grieving.

Lives brought up short abruptly and in shockingly public ways right in the middle of being lived, and other lives ending privately with some warning.  Barely born ones touching down lightly and leaving us at once and very old ones leaving us in the arms of others they made out of their own bodies, or not.

And all of us still here at this time going on with the unfinishable project of writing the rules for grieving when grief is suddenly more than can be held in the boxes and buildings and clay cups we have made to hold all the stuff. People setting fire to things and lying down on freeways, and setting tables of thanksgiving with empty places, and making quiet organised gestures, all of us trying to find the words for these confusing experiences of shared public grieving while not getting in the way of others above us in the complicated hierarchy of entitlement to shock.

Because it’s not over. We’re all here to go on dying, that’s our work, our gift of making way to everyone who comes after us. And yet we work as if that’s not the case, not relevant to our values, as if it’s a vanishingly tiny thing relative to the busyness and accomplishment we stand for while we’re here.

But sometimes it feels as if the spectacle of dying demands our attention, and so we stop awkwardly and don’t know what to do with ourselves, how to show up, where to stand, banal and tricky survivors that we are. Do we play cricket this weekend, or not? Do we go to McDonalds? Do we carry on with the chatter of our day online as though #blacklivesmatter or #blackdeathsincustody or #stolenlives or #putoutyourbats shouldn’t just let all the other conversations fall quiet and all the workday deadlines go by unattended?

Aren’t we meant to stand and line the roads in silence at a time like this?

2.

In the waiting room of the radiotherapy unit where I spent a lot of time this year, there’s a big table of jigsaw puzzles. People come along, and fill in their bit, while they wait. Because that’s one of the weird details of cancer treatment: it involves a lot of waiting, a lot of sitting about, a lot of downtime. So we put the pieces of the sky back together, over and over.

Without exactly planning it this way, at home we distracted ourselves from cancer with the enormous and unfinishable puzzle of military history. Weird, hey.

So now, written up in the incalculable heap of debts I will never be able to repay to the beautiful Rustichello who walked every single step of this year with me, is the fact that I really know a lot more than I did about war. War movies, documentaries, audio books, actual books being read aloud to me in the middle of night: the soundtrack of this year. It’s got me thinking about why we keep telling ourselves the story of war, given the price of listening: wins at terrible cost, losses at even greater cost, history excused by the winners and remembered by the losers, and all the maps and diagrams and technologies and turning points. So many stories, so much hurt.

And at some level it seems to me that what happens when people commit to going back and thinking about what happened in the past is connected to this strange capacity that we have to show up—this same capacity that social networks online have suddenly made visible at such extraordinary scale—in respect of the grief carried in the lives of others, to maintain some kind of vigil over the histories of dying, to keep passing on the stories of the exact moment they left us, and what grief remained, and for whom.

But I think we’re still struggling with the practice of showing up in the context of lives that are still being lived.

3.

And so this gets to what we might be searching for as we say over and over and over and over: rest in peace. What is that peace that we can’t bring ourselves to create in life on this earth, that we hope others will rest in by dying?

The problem is that a conciliatory practice of peaceableness can’t come into being in any rational way with things as they are, and we all know it, and none of us know what to do about this. So we end up with showdown after showdown, pleading with each other to listen, while demanding compliance and respect and public order and fatalism from those who get the least from the way things are.

And it’s so hard because to listen well, we have to listen to the stories that are furthest from our own values. Because for someone it really is about ethics in games journalism, and for someone else it really is about the shirt, and for a whole crew of others it’s the energising sense of capacity and relevance that comes from tipping the trash cans over and over and over. What even is that?

So power can’t make way, privilege can’t shut up, and yet for all the talking there is now so much we can’t bring ourselves to say. In a beautiful post, Tressie McMillan Cottom puts part of it like this:

But it should never be spoken. We should never have to admit that we have sanctioned murder so that we can have stuff. Stuff, loosely defined, runs the gamut from televisions and plate glass windows to whiteness and bike lanes. We should never be forced to articulate that we have accepted a minimum threshold for murders so that we can have stuff. (Tressie McMillan Cottom, Riots and Reason)

And then it happens that people who do have something to say about this, something that might help, second guess themselves, stay quiet, and don’t know how to show up in case they’re in the wrong fight, on the wrong topic, carrying the wrong credential.

Shut up.

4.

And yet we keep trying to show up. In Australia we’re watching the showing up that’s happening in the context of a particular incident of public loss, a life that was stopped in public, right there on the television while people were reaching for a beer or chatting or sending another email, freakishly and impossibly and in a way that confounds statistics and any reasonable safeguards.

And I’m reading about Kate Forristall’s beautiful #irlproject, which is fundamentally about showing up for others as we are here, all still living as we are.

And I can’t help it: I think in the face of all of this—look, we have got this. We know what to do. We’re doing it. We’re weeping, exactly as we should.

Cricket bat

All over Australia, people are doing this thing today: #putoutyourbats


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With our own meaning

I met for the first time the essential questions of my own mortality … None of us have 300 years. The terror that I conquered in those three weeks left me with a determination and freedom to speak as I needed, and to enjoy and live my life as I needed to for my own meaning.

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Short version: it’s about this.

Please donate.

Long version

Last week was national Go Home on Time Day, and for me, the anniversary of all this. After a year of writing about academic overwork—why we do it, and what it costs us in human terms—I spent the day at the NTEU Insecure Work conference in Hobart, learning about makes these personal choices part of a larger system in which, as a colleague said to me a couple of days ago, labour itself is broken.

To nudge overworking academics into going home on time, the NTEU put out straightforward and sobering resources, including the astounding fact that “Australian workers donate $110 billion unpaid overtime to their employers.” I’m not sure how we manage to do this, given that a recent UK study showed their overall unpaid overtime value to be a trifling £640 million, but the general point is clear: the most developed economies run on a chronic habit of overwork for some that’s chained to a chronic problem of underemployment and underemployment for many, that together leave millions locked out of the benefits of having a developed economy at all.

UK reports are now consistently showing that the problem of overwork is being driven by the “culture of extra hours” of workplace managers who lead us from the front in using their early mornings, late evenings and weekends working and communicating with their staff, continuously promoting to the entire workforce a powerful lesson about what it takes to flourish in this culture:

Almost half of UK managers work an extra day of unpaid overtime per week, a study into working practices has suggested. … Around 13% of managers work two days unpaid overtime per week, the Institute of Leadership and Management said.

To say that academics can relate to this pattern of work is to enter the terrain of bears, woods and shit. It’s so obvious that we hardly know where to begin in thinking about it. Although if you listen to any group of academics talking about their own experience of overwork, you’ll still hear from people who think it’s about the privilege of flexible working lives, the ability to work when and where we want, to get on with doing what we love at all hours of the day and night.

This packaging of system failure as personal privilege is precisely how we cooperate in ensuring that the unpaid overtime never gets back on the balance sheet, never amounts to business intelligence that not enough people are being hired to do the work the organisation wants done. Your day of unpaid overtime might feel like the only strategy you have, the only way to survive, the only hope of future promotion or the protection of those around you—and it actually might be all of those things—but it’s also the sound of someone else’s job not being created, not even being reckoned with in the budget and the strategic plan and the audit of the sustainability of the organisation where you work.

And universities are leading whole communities in this way of living because when we do this, we also send this message to our students and our kids and our friends and our neighbours that secure employment now naturally involves relinquishing the political solidarity it would take to do what we came here to do, and that we do well, within the compensated hours on our contracts. This is also how we find ourselves without even the time to listen to one another in ways that would make our work more effective and durable, because every day we’re being chased by deadline after deadline, and our whole thinking lives are galvanised by interruption and crisis: because the system as a whole has said yes to too many things at once.

So the lesson that I’ve learned in my year away from all this finally sank in this week. A visitor came to our campus, and a small group of us sat down together to reflect on the questions about the fragmentation and repair of academic life and practice that he had raised for us by sharing a short piece of his work in progress on networked participatory scholarship. We didn’t come out with a grant proposal, a research paper, or an outcome of any kind. This work would show up on any reckoning of our productivity as a little gap, an inefficiency, a nothing.

But I came out smarter, better at listening.

And we also came out to a world of hurt, like people who were on a plane when the big news broke. As we sat in the room, #FergusonDecision. The immense, desperate spectacle of anger in the US on a scale that Australians find hard to imagine. And from Australia, the anger in return of all those who live here under the shadow of our own reckoning that some lives matter less than others: that some people get to participate in our economy and enjoy its prosperity and raise their kids in freedom, health and safety, and some people don’t, and that’s just the way things are.

So I got snagged there for a moment there on the problem of how to sustain practices of hope that will lead to change when the evidence seems to pile up on all sides that we have already broken the environment we live in and that the best we can hope for is to pull off surreptitious gestures of resistance or appreciation, before going to lie down in a darkened room and wait for the finish.

Then some things happened. That is, things didn’t happen differently, but having taken time to think, I noticed things happening that add up for me to a way of looking differently at this mess we’re in.

The Koori Woman wrote this about the kindness of strangers. The Smart Casual—the most kick-ass colleague you could ever hope for—came flying out of the corner where higher education had her boxed in and wrote this astonishing piece about grief. My daughter Clementine wrote this about what she has learned from her dad. Australian journalists Mark Colvin and Julia Baird shared this conversation about resilience, love and survival in the face of life. A bunch of famous Australians got together and made a thing that—even if celebrity singalongs aren’t your cup of tea—at the very least shows a group of influential humans right in the act of saying that the way things are won’t do for them any more.

And while thinking about tipping points, I came out to an email from the organisers of a health campaign that really matters to me, telling us that the tipping point has been reached, and they’ll be converting the pledges to donations. This is great news. But they have a way to go, so they are reaching out for the practical support of anyone who can give a small donation in the final 13 days of their campaign.

I support this campaign because these women, in the context of their own community and in line with their own cultural meaning, will get this done. It’s their idea, their cause, their health, their plan, and their determination to change the way things are. The donation process is really, really simple and quick. Please find time to read about them, please pass on this message, and please consider giving them a donation if you’re in a position to.

Dianne Biritjalawuy and the women of Hope for Health, I really hope this helps.


55 Comments

Not done yet

for so many this year, but especially for Audrey Watters

I live in a very small Australian seaside community, with 5600 others. It’s within easy reach of major cities including Sydney, so we’re not exactly isolated. But the non-negotiable topography of Thirroul—ocean on one side, escarpment on the other—keeps commercial development at human scale. I can walk the length of the town. My kids all went to the local primary school. I know the local pathology collectors; I see the two of them at the shops getting their lunch. Last night I found out that the trainer at the gym my daughter goes to is the daughter of the woman who owns the shoe shop. How about that?

In the before time, I had a different relationship to this community. I skimmed and skipped, and drove through it at speed, picking up kids or last minute groceries. In fact, I drove to stores that are a seven minute walk from my house because I didn’t have that seven minutes to spare, seeing as how I was already seven weeks behind on everything. Maybe once a month I’d find myself with the time on weekend to snatch a very quick coffee out and about with a local friend, and we’d both say “well, this is nice not being at work”, while both surreptitiously checking emails.

This year I have walked and walked. I have walked kids to school, and walked to medical appointments, and walked with friends, and walked just to see what was growing in gardens. And in turn I have learned its daily rhythms of place: who’s out to coffee, what time all the different shop owners open their doors, when the school buses wheel in and out of their turning circle, what time the post is delivered.

I have also been the somewhat visible local person with cancer, and as I lost my hair and then slowly got it back, and kept walking, people I don’t know except by these routines smiled encouragingly, cheered me up hills, and asked after us all.

Today I was walking back from the school thinking about why Twitter, the other small community where I’ve spent my year, has become such a place of distress and anger. What does it mean that in this conversation I’ve found sustaining and helpful, that has introduced me to people whose thoughts and research and ideas are of incalculable value to me, people are saying that they have no choice but to move away from the neighbourhood because of its toxic atmosphere and/or emotionally stupid business experiments? What does it mean that so many of those people are women? And how should we even begin to respond to this?

So I was musing on this, and intermittently also thinking about how yesterday’s Australian Twitter was so full of appreciative and reflective commentary on the contribution of Gough Whitlam to Australia’s public universities and hospitals, when I drifted into the thing that happened.

In the middle of a tiny carpark that takes maybe 20 cars, a man was shouting at the driver of a small silver car. The driver was elderly and he kept his window up. As I got closer, the red-faced man yelled “You shouldn’t even be driving!” and charged off to the railway station. I watched the driver pull into a space, where he stayed, evidently very shaken, and still kept his window tightly up. The traffic lights detained me on the other side of the road and gave me a bit of time to think, and when I eventually crossed the road I took a bit of a breath and tapped on his window to see that he was OK.

The thing is, I really think the measure of our capacity to call ourselves a community relates to our responses in a whole range of situations for which there can’t be laws or even social demands, but only instinct. At the beginning of this difficult year, Richard Hall recommended Arthur Frank’s At the Will of The Body to me as a memoir of illness, and I ended up reading many other things that Frank has written, including his beautiful reflection on the tension between justice and care, The Renewal of Generosity. In this book Frank writes on the messy, difficult interactions that comprise medical care: the care that health professionals show their patients, and the care that patients demonstrate in the way that they present themselves. Ranging widely from this point, Frank asks what it takes for us to achieve an instinctual practice of generosity towards others when so much that is awful in the world seems to demand instead that we take sides on issues.

Where we end up with this demand to take a stand, I think, is that our interactions with others become a constant, and exhausting, requirement to show ourselves as good before we speak. Even one of the most beautiful and courageous political interventions that I’ve seen all year couches itself in this way: which side are you on, friend, which side are you on?  But if we accept this practice of camp loyalty as the minimum standard for being worth listening to, and no other, I think we’re also running some risks as these standards have to be expressed in terms of the grossest possible generalisation to work at all. And this means that we are already prepared to relinquish what is particular and complicated about any interaction between two people.

The two strangers whose paths crossed so disastrously this morning each had a story, and I heard one of them. The elderly driver told me that the man had jumped out to cross the road from between two cars, and he had not seen the man and so had not stopped his car. There had nearly been a serious collision. I could see that part of this was that the man who was walking was actually running for the train, and he had risked the crossing lights to get there. They met. Harm was done to both, and then by one to the other in the name of retribution, in front of many concerned onlookers.

But what does it mean to respond to this? Does it mean that we start every time from a naive relativism, and a determination to see both sides? Do we really have to search for consensus every single time? What about “Yes, that guy was an asshole because, you know, assholes”? Isn’t that sometimes the only way to make a difference at the macro level to the structure of asshole culture? But then, what about agency? What about agency?

Earlier this year when the mental impact of chemotherapy meant that I could hardly read, I returned again and again to a paragraph of Cornel West’s, just because I could understand it—even if five minutes after I closed the page I couldn’t remember anything about it.

Marx’s own effort to account for determination highlights the multileveled interplay between historically situated subjects who act and materially grounded structures that circumscribe, that is, enable and constrain, such action. This human action constitutes structured social practices which are reducible neither to context-free discrete acts of individuals nor to objective structures unaffected by human agency. … The aim of Marxist theory is to view each historical moment as a multidimensional transaction between subjects shaped by antecedent structures and traditions and prevailing structures and traditions transformed by struggling subjects. (Cornel West, Keeping Faith, 231)

That’s pretty clear. And that’s where I think we are with our transactions, our struggling social communities, our networks, the places and persons that we care for. At some level we have to accept that every side is circumscribed, every speaking position is taken, and every single thing that now can be said will trigger someone else’s despairing fury that this is the same old, same old, mounting up to what’s most wrong in the world. I feel that way myself on so many things. And yes, I did want to chase the guy to the railway station and tell him to STFU with his stupid, vengeful performance of injury. So there’s that.

But when I said goodbye to the elderly driver, and walked around the corner, the real thing happened. A small group of three women came up to me and asked if he was OK, because they were also just going up to check on him when they saw me do it. And for a moment there the four of us strangers stood in the sunshine, and thought about what it meant to each of us to care enough about the health of our community to try to be part of a better way of doing it.

I think we’re all shaken by the state of the world, but I’m not sure we’re done with our efforts to understand it, to bring together our individual resources for care, and to act with both personal and collective generosity in it.

Thanks to so many who have helped me and my family this year, that’s where I am.


16 Comments

What next for the LMS?

All of a sudden it’s LMS week* in mostly-US higher education. Nudged by the imminent Educause annual conference, there’s a whole pop-up festival of reflection on why we still have enterprise learning management systems—and why we have the ones we have.

Audrey Watters, D’Arcy NormanPhil Hill, Michael Feldstein, Jared Stein and Jonathan Rees have all contributed to this thoughtful and detailed conversation; anyone who thinks universities just woke up one day trapped inside a giant LMS dome really should read each of these at least. And Mike Caulfield has nailed one of the key problems: LMS features that don’t deliver the function associated with the name—in this case, the wiki tools in an LMS that rhymes with Borg.

As Audrey Watters rightly points out in her look over the wall at what lies beyond the LMS, the natural mode of LMS development is incremental, calibrated to the traditional operations of education institutions. The bottom line is this: content goes in, grades come out, and the whole thing can be flushed and repopulated with new learners the next time it runs. The LMS is particularly efficient at delivering sequential learning, and so it’s learner-centred in the same way that IKEA is customer-centred.

But the LMS story isn’t centrally about user experience. It’s a story about corporations, their investors, and their attention to higher education as a market. This week, George Kroner and his colleagues at the Edutechnica blog revisited their 2013 analysis of four countries in the global LMS marketplace, to see how the market share of key players has shifted over the past 12 months.

This is the state of things as a bar chart:

LMS 'global' market share data, Edutechnica blog

LMS ‘global’ market share data, edutechnica.com

It’s a flattening visualisation that distorts the dollar value of the Australian market to an extraordinary degree, and it’s triggered a rerun of last year’s polite shoving between George Kroner and Allan Christie, General Manager of Blackboard’s ANZ operations, as to what counts as the Australian higher education market.

Put simply, it is generally accepted that there are 39 universities (38 public, 1 private) in Australia. (Allan Christie)

In short, I do not consider the list of the 39 universities to be a complete representation of higher education in Australia. (George Kroner)

The thing is, the entire Australian market is a hill of beans in comparison to the US. This is why we don’t belong on this misleading chart, but it’s also why our LMS market behaves the way it does, and so strongly favours the existing near-duopoly. In all but three of our generally agreed major institutions, one well known LMS has the advantage of incumbency, and the other well known LMS has the advantage of not being the incumbent, which is unpopular with its users in the same way that politicians are: generically. In a small system where everyone knows everyone, the influence of other institutions’ decisions is direct and intense. It tethers aspiration to conformism, and cautions against risk. Look at the neighbours, we say, they bought a Kia. Or the other one. Either way.

But this year, the disputed inclusion of Australia’s non-university providers is newly significant. The constitution of higher education in Australia is the subject of a substantial reform bill currently under Senate investigation (submissions to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment have just closed, and you can check them out here.) If the Higher Education and Research Reform Amendment Bill passes, it will change the relationship between the generally agreed 39, and the less well understood mix of others who can award degrees but until now have been excluded from Commonwealth funding.

No one’s sure exactly how Australia’s universities will adapt to all this, or how the non-university providers will be able to take advantage of their access to funding previously reserved for university places. But it’s likely that over the next few years LMS selection in the whole higher education sector will be sensitised to the attraction and retention of students who have grown up online, who are facing higher levels of education debt, and who will be vigorously encouraged by price signalling into comparison shopping. They will encounter a university system with more feedback mechanisms, more features, more special offers, and more personalised interventions of all kinds. Even if we’re not yet at the stage of installing lazy rivers, our online environments will become potentially distinctive campus amenities just like our libraries. Their quality, efficiency, and accessibility will become important in new ways, both to students looking to move quickly through degrees and sub-degree programs, and to university leaders looking for ways to expand and secure new markets, while keeping the overheads from teaching as low as possible.

Meanwhile many senior executive decision-makers setting the strategic direction for the use of these systems will still come from the generation whose own undergraduate experience (and perhaps whose academic careers) avoided online learning altogether. This is one reason, I think, why they have a view of LMS use that is far more utopian than most academics or students. It’s also the reason that universities underestimate by a very long way the proportion of academic staff workload that should now be reserved for LMS resource development, not just in exceptional circumstances like LMS change implementation, but all the time.

The result of this failure over many years to recognise the time needed to use an LMS well means that we end up with the situation Audrey Watters describes:

The learning management system has shaped a generation’s view of education technology, and I’d contend, shaped it for the worst. It has shaped what many people think ed-tech looks like, how it works, whose needs it suits, what it can do, and why it would do so. The learning management system reflects the technological desires of administrators — it’s right there in the phrase. “Management.” It does not reflect the needs of teachers and learners.

This is right, but it’s not the consequence of essentially bad design. The LMS is specifically good at what universities need it to do. Universities have learning management systems for the same reason they have student information systems: because their core institutional business isn’t learning itself, but the governance of the processes that assure that learning has happened in agreed ways. Universities exist to award degrees, to the right people at the right time, and to do this responsibly they have to invest in the most robust administrative processes: enrolment management at one end, and lock tight records management at the other. Actual student learning is something they outsource to their academic faculty, who still achieve this with minimal management oversight except through feedback surveys.

But as we move towards a more competitive system, with tighter budgets and higher expectations for quality, we should probably notice that the LMS is also a performance monitoring system for teaching. Minimally this is being introduced through the development of institutional threshold standards for online learning practice, while the attention of analytics tools is technically towards the evidence of student engagement with learning. As more routine teaching shifts online, there is nothing whatsoever to inhibit the development of LMS analytics for staff performance evaluation—including of casual and sessional staff.

This is why even academics who find the LMS a pretty hopeless teaching environment need to keep an eye on its strategic development, and especially to pay close attention when institutions engage in the process of selecting a new LMS. Because behind all the blither about the transformation of the student learning experience, an enterprise level management system is exactly what it says on the tin.

 

* LMS week: it’s like Shark Week, only longer.

 


5 Comments

Calling it out

Many academics in their 50s might feel that they’re not ready to retire yet – but should they be forced out early? Well, of course, not all of them should.

Anonymous, ‘Should Older Academics Be Forced To Retire?‘,  The Thesis Whisperer

Bullshit. Is this really the world we choose to live in? Is this a system that works?

John Warner, ‘Calling BS … BS‘, Inside Higher Education

I’m a fan of The Thesis Whisperer (“just like the horse whisperer—but with more pages”), Inger Mewburn’s pathmaking PhD student support blog. It has a deservedly wide and international following, and it’s a model for other Australian group blogs, including the excellent Research Whisperer (“just like the Thesis Whisperer—but with more money”). For all these reasons TW hosts a serious critical conversation about Australian higher education, while also offering practical, encouraging advice for those who believe it’s not time to call bullshit on higher education.

So it says something about the state of things that TW’s anonymous contributor today dug up higher education’s zombie question: are unproductive older academics refusing to make way for the next generation? Unfortunately, couching this in sweeping generational terms scooped up those who are at least 15 years from retirement age, and ended up with this:

I can’t understand those over 50’s who hang on when they are clearly hating the way academia has changed.

They were lucky to live through an age when it was possible to have aspirations for an academic career and have a reasonable chance of fulfilling their dreams. And now they get a second bite at the cherry! They have great pension arrangements which means they have the opportunity to spend the next 20-30 years in relative comfort.

Early retirement might give some of these world weary academics a chance to discover who they are, apart from their academic identity. Imagine all that time, just enjoy being alive, healthy and prosperous? So few people in the world have that opportunity.

Touching as this is, it completely ignores weary academics with dependent families, or a backstory of contract employment and patchy superannuation contributions, or who just took out their first mortgage in their 50s. Is this really too hard to imagine? And the problem is that if you start like this, you end up with this kind of comment:

And we all know successful senior academics (again of any age, but let’s face it predominantly older than 40) who do nothing except the bare minimum they can get away with and resent any thing new and even seem to take pride in being techno-phobic.

Yikes.

Despite the fact that I should be reaching for my secateurs, I’m a specialist online educator, surrounded by academics of all ages who embrace, object to, experiment with and loathe technology—sometimes all on the same day. From close reading of global higher education literature, policy, reports, statistics and the endless blither coming at us from the tech sector, I don’t think it helps to reduce higher education’s problems to “we all know” and “let’s face it”.  It’s just not that simple.

The problems we are facing are structural, entrenched and worsening, and not the consequence of anyone’s underwork. So even if you know a senior academic sauntering to retirement, they’re not the reason there aren’t enough jobs to go around, and they’re not holding back anyone’s promotion. Resenting academics who have better superannuation or were hired at a different time is like resenting someone who bought a beach house before prices went up.

The twin problems corroding university work—for those that have it and those that want it—are underemployment and overwork. Just as in the northern hemisphere, Australian universities have discovered that the risk of market volatility can be moderated by the use of flexible, short-term seasonal hiring, and they’re using it to keep the business open. The only question that concerns them is how much casualisation an institution can bear before there’s some pushback on student satisfaction or quality assurance metrics.

So the rapid expansion of academic casualisation isn’t some kind of stalled wait line for the career escalator, that will resume its normal function once the bodies blocking it have been removed. It signals a more profound and unfixable market failure: like the US, Australia has failed to deliver on promises made to PhD students when they were enrolling. So anyone who’s pitching intergenerational change as a lure to PhD recruitment is selling a part-share in a unicorn. Academics in their early fifties are still picking up their kids from primary school.

This leaves the question of unproductive academics. Shouldn’t they be forced to give up their seat for someone who would appreciate it? This seems more reasonable, and even the defenders of the zimmer frame generation pause at this point. Why yes, productivity.

What if we had 360 degree feedback with academics – getting input from their students as to their performance? What if all academics had performance metrics and were accountable to their students to retain their positions? I think you would find that those academics who felt the pressure to actually perform, keep up with technology and be accountable would leave on their own accord.

Now we really have both feet in the quicksand.

First of all, academics are already measured, surveyed, evaluated and reported on. Research support and leave is already being withheld from anyone not measuring up. Institutions already have productivity management processes, and they are already being used. We don’t have tenure in Australia; academic jobs can be lost through performance management, and without fault through restructure and redundancy. If you don’t think your institution is moving fast enough to use these measures against your senior colleagues, go for it. But as John Warner asks in his terrific essay, is this really the workplace we choose to build? And do we trust that its instruments are true?

Productivity is a weak measure of contribution to the overall work of an academic institution because it focuses so narrowly on one part of the institutional portfolio, and measures by outputs. So it excludes all the collegial processes essential to the institution’s survival, including governance activities, professional service, mentoring, participating in networks, and professional development; and it overlooks the impact of structural change requiring more inputs for the same outcome. If you’re suddenly leading larger teaching teams, preparing more website content,  filling out more forms to meet internal and external QA requirements, keeping more complex records to meet separate audit requirements, and taking longer to drain your email sump, none of this will amount to an increase in your productivity–just a decrease in your available time.

But it gets worse. Productivity as a faith system is inseparable from the operations of the paywalled academic journal publishing industry and its enclosure of publicly funded research inside a privileged domain. So it’s one of the most corrupting pressures placed on the public mission of universities and the values of those who choose to work in them. Should it be the means by which we measure each other as well? In May this year, Melonie Fullick wrote a critical analysis of productivity in higher education that’s worth reading in full.

The concern about time and “production” can be internalized to the point where we strive to find ways of making our progress visible. But for much of what we do, this may not be possible.

If academic work is about knowledge, and we come to apply the concept of “productivity” to this work without questioning the implications, then what are we saying about how knowledge happens – and the nature of knowledge itself? The epistemological question flows from the question of governance. If we govern universities on the same terms that we manage factories, we change our relationship to knowledge and also the nature of what we “know”.

Parallel to this, Richard Hall has been writing all year about the increasingly fraught relationship between the managerialist ideal of the quantified academic self and the operation of the university as an anxiety machine. He looks closely as an expert educational technologist at what lies behind the recruitment of technology to help capitalism come to terms with the diminishing productivity (in other words, profitability) of human labour. It’s a grim picture, painted by a pathologically successful senior academic, of the consequences of our complete capitulation to the logic of overwork.

We won’t address these deep and damaging structural inequities within higher education work by using its most broken instruments to surveil and rebuke each other—this is complicity with bullshit, and it won’t change a thing.

For G.M. and R.C.

 

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