Music for Deckchairs

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


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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.


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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?


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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“.


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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.

PFW*

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.


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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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Because work

At this time of year, many of us are dreaming of lying on a quiet beach under a palm tree … . Instead, we are more likely to be watching the sun shine down from behind the office window, while staring obsessively at our computer screens and becoming consumed by our overflowing inboxes.

It seems that Australia isn’t the laidback nation it’s perceived to be.

Aussies: reluctant to take annual leave, Big Fish Global Consulting Group, back in 2012

Summertime in Australia, and the sharks are tweeting.

When I first came here in the mid 1990s, Australian universities still operated like the television industry in the expectation that everyone went on holiday for the whole of January. Academics didn’t need to book leave; under the terms of a “deeming provision” in the employment agreement, it could be taken for granted that we were all at the beach because that’s what January means in Australian culture. So the legal fiction of annual leave could be maintained without much admin overhead, while the actual practice of leaving work and doing something else with your time was gradually being washed out to sea by sector-wide changes to the way universities operated in the summer period.

Realistically academics have always used January to write, setting up exactly the conditions for other kinds of work bleeding into their personal time. But now there are more and more administrative deadlines, including those related to grant-getting and grant-acquitting, that require a more routine kind of work through January. It’s also peak hunting season for potential undergraduates who have better or worse than expected high school results.  And the ferris wheels of shared governance all started to turn at the beginning of the month, even if some academics might still be choosing to protect themselves from knowing how any of these work.

So Australian universities now recognise that if they need to stay open for business all year, then the deeming provision that writes everyone’s leave off in January is fraudulent to the point of risk. Even though some of the cultural expectations about January still apply, the practical change is that academics now get to apply for annual leave, which means that someone has to approve it, and then the whole system spends the rest of the year auditing, worrying and auto-generating emails about the fact that what we have here is a burned-out profession sitting on a huge stockpile of untaken time away from work.

To this extent, despite the popular caricature that we barely show up at all, academics turn out to be pretty much the same as any other salaried workers in a churning economy, with Australia coming fifth in 2012 in a global survey on “holiday deprivation in developed nations“:

According to the survey, we are only taking fifteen of our twenty entitled annual leave days. Therefore we’re waving goodbye to a whole working weeks’ worth of holidays. As a nation, this leaves us with over 118 million days of annual leave stockpiled; or in other words: 350,000 years of holidays and $33.3 billion in wages.

Although 70% of annual leave stockpilers acknowledge that taking time off to recharge does wonders for your work/life balance, many also say that personal or work-related barriers are holding them back. Concerns regarding money, failure to plan, deliberately saving for emergencies or not being able to coordinate leave with a partner’s availability were cited as major reasons for not taking leave. A further 57% of stockpilers blame work-related barriers for their inability to take holidays, including; separation anxiety from work, lack of cover, negative reactions from employers and difficulties of being granted leave in the first place.

So there’s that. But let’s look at this another way.

Paid leave is the privilege of a minority of those who actually teach in universities. It’s part of the package of privileges that come with salaried, permanent academic employment, including sick leave, carers leave, bereavement leave, sabbaticals, paid leave for long service, superannuation, access to retention and attraction bonuses, access to research grant funding etc. But wait, there’s more: a permanent salary also underwrites your credit standing in relation to other middle-class institutions (banks, real estate), gives you a professional identity, and sustains a general ability to plan for your future. So even where it doesn’t come with healthcare, a salaried job is the golden ticket in an economy characterised by precarity, underemployment, unemployment, and the vast shadow economy of informal work.

In Australia, the compensation for being excluded from the privilege of security is a loading that nominally treats casual academics as self-managed contractors who fund their own entitlements. On paper, this looks OK. But while we still systematically underestimate how long the institution’s teaching work actually takes to get done—because the same calculations feed into the very, very sensitive matter of staff-student ratios—then we not only reduce their hourly rate, but also drag down with it the significance and real value of their compensatory loading.

There are two problems here. One is that we still base most measures of teaching work not on outputs but on the fiction of the contact hour, which is recognised as not quite belonging to the temporality of corporeal life but to some weird metonymic calculation where the hour in front of a class implies the other hours required to enable that contact hour to happen. Only the contact hour is measured in the tick of a regular clock and the others are calculated according to a piecework formula which amounts to however long a piece of string happens to be. It’s a mess, because it’s a gross effort to discipline 21st century university work, which is asynchronous, virtual, global and multitasked, in the name of 14th century scholarly practices.

The second problem is that the variables in how long teaching actually takes are among the most politically sensitive in higher education. Topicality and currency of teaching materials, building and equipment maintenance, variability in student preparedness, professional development for teachers, health and accessibility considerations—these are all topics that make higher education institutions wince because they’re in the cost planning side of the strategy. This is the bit the institution uses to try to manage the risk of volatility on the revenue side as students and families weigh up the prospect of college debt v. college premium. So institutions underinvest a little bit in all these things, and try to calculate how much they can save without introducing reputational risk, which is of course risk to revenue. That’s how both salaried and hourly paid academics end up having to contribute their own time to the enterprise, whether they’re supposed to be off the clock or off on leave, to cover this gap.

So thinking about the complexity of all this, here’s a New Year message to our colleagues in edtech.  As you’re making your 2014 to-do list, please make sure that you’re really well informed about the labour market conditions in the sector you’re promising to disrupt. We’ve had two years of listening to you about the democratisation of student access to education, and the efficacy of student management; now let’s hear your thoughts on improving the human experience of work in higher education—and not just for the handful of mostly male tenured celebrities at top-tier US institutions you’re using to promote your brand.

Because until you really understand the rapid, serious deterioration of work in higher education, your chances of achieving sustainable change, the change that you want to be part of, are nil.

 

Health update: Thanks so much to everyone who’s written and asked, brought meals for us, and hung out our washing. Recovery was quite tough this time because of a second general anaesthetic quickly following the first, but I’m up and about, and waiting for results from the second surgery at the end of this week, before moving to the next stage of this thing. I heard Shane Warne say yesterday that the Australian cricket team is essential to the idea of Australian culture, and I can see why he thinks that, but for me it’s Medicare. Australian public hospitals and the people who work in them are facing the same underfunding and casualisation as us, the same mad search for efficiency, but as Mary-Helen Ward pointed out to me this week, what they deal with is beyond comparison.


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Ratfarming: let’s not

But in our minds the answer to the question “Should I blog?” is now a clear and resounding “Yes”, at least, if conventional indicators of academic success are your aim. Blogging is now part of a complex online ‘attention economy’ where social media like Twitter and Facebook are not merely dumb ‘echo chambers’ but a massive global conversation which can help your work travel much further than you might initially think.

Inger Mewburn and Pat Thompson, “Academic blogging is part of a complex attention economy leading to unprecedented readership” (LSE blogs, this week)

Now that I’m on sick leave, the question of what counts as work has slanted a bit. Academics are chronically prone to working while sick. Often this is accompanied with a little self-justifying jig in which we explain that we love to do our research/teaching etc so much that it doesn’t count as work. But it’s just as often the way deadlines don’t wait, and what we do is essentially contract project work that’s hard to pass on to others. Lying in bed staring at the ceiling, we all feel the pressure of the snowcave of email in which we’re slowly being buried. And so we chip away at it anyway, because it’s easier to maintain an airway of sorts by tunnelling constantly, than to have to dig yourself out from six feet of snow at the end of it.

This is fantastically good news for universities, who couldn’t stay open without the human chain of volunteer labour that extends from graduate students and other adjuncts working well beyond their paid casual hours, to salaried workers taking their email, grading, peer reviewing and online teaching into doctors’ waiting rooms, hospitals and bed.

But the funny thing about cancer is that it seems so extreme, that everyone is advising me to make sure that I’m not working. So I’ve had to think again about what counts as work, and figure out what it is that I want to protect during this confronting, confusing time.

It turns out that I don’t think of either blogging or Twitter as part of my paid employment. Quite the opposite: I started writing online secretively in 2011 because I was looking for somewhere to think for myself. I didn’t want a platform; I didn’t want to promote my research or improve my profile. I didn’t even want people to know who I was, in case this troubled my employer. I wanted to make a bower for collecting things of value to me: thoughts, information, other people’s words that would amount to a better grasp of why higher education felt like a difficult place to be.

A whole lot has changed since then. Academics are now being advised and trained to blog; and as Inger and Pat suggest in their thoughtful discussion of the impact of blogging profile on journal article downloads, it may be that they will eventually be considered delinquent if they don’t.

As it happens, I don’t dispute the utility of blogging in the “attention economy”.  It does work, if that’s what you’re after. And I really can see why people get into Twitter for its amplifying capacity. We’re all unsettled by the way that academic publishing encloses writing that was already paid for by a public that then would have to pay a second time actually to read it. As citations are becoming both the carrot and the stick for survival then it makes sense that research managers are becoming more interested in the way that academics could deploy social media work to make themselves more upworthy.

But I have some serious reservations about hitching public online conversations to the pseudo-productivity of formal academic publication. It’s not about the impact of social media on the academy, but the reverse. Academic publishing is collapsing as a meaningful forum for the circulation of ideas precisely because its true function is now to maintain the scarcity of repute, in an economy that trades individual reputation for institution reputation, all of which washes back to the journals themselves. Journals pride themselves on equating difficulty with quality: how hard it is for anything to be published, and how long it takes. They do this because they need to maintain their own business models and market value; these are very hard times for them too. So for prestige to attach to publication, a huge volume of written work that has already gone through many drafts and redrafts has to be rejected.

The squandering of human time that closed, peer-reviewed academic publishing represents is truly astonishing. It’s a similar in scale, nature and damage to the other competitive systems on which higher education stakes its claim to excellence: hiring, tenure, grant-getting, ranking schemes. For all of these to be meaningful in the current scheme, they require massive failure rates. This required failure ratio then expresses itself as a kind of personal shame that works as an inducement to further overwork, which is exactly how the human cost is becoming so significant.

And the idea of publication as a means of making funded research genuinely useful has been substituted by the work of counting and factoring up research outputs. The classic story told about perverse incentives is ratfarming under colonial rule in Hanoi: in an economy where peasants are paid per rat kill, the sensible response is to farm rats to kill and turn in for reward. In other words, the rational decision that the system triggers is the exact opposite of the system’s goal. The hyphenation of citation to rankings means that higher education is very close to perfecting in its workers its own ratfarming calculation, and we all know it.

Sure, social media has versions of all this, but it’s still possible to make a space within its generous and substantially ungovernable folds for practices of thinking, sharing and listening that are self-managed, and that work just because they work for you. You can chase followers, or not mind at all.  You can spend all day listening to three people and no more.  You can maintain a valuable and engaging life on Twitter in the same way that you’re stimulated by listening to the radio in the car or having coffee with three friends: you don’t need the whole world in your ear at one time. And above all, you can do this without having to file an end-of-year report.

These not-work practices now need protecting against the seductive but ultimately quite sleazy pull of the attention economy. Surreptitiously joined up networks of people thinking quietly, on their own time, now offer higher education a whole range of models for learning and discovering that will still be here after the MOOC circus moves on.

That is, unless blogging becomes professionally compulsory, in which case we’ll all be in the ratfarm.

Thanks to Bon Stewart for the conversation today that got me thinking to write this down.

Also, health update: I’m off to hospital tomorrow for further surgery. Getting a big diagnosis as a higher education worker, and writing about it here, has taught me that there’s far, far more in this gift economy than the attention economy will ever offer.  Thank you.

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