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?