Music for Deckchairs

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



Updates below

In a bizarre coincidence, when I opened the book to scan the contents I found myself looking at the section about sharks.  In particular, “surviving if you are in a raft and you sight sharks—”… I wonder if anyone would be interested in using this as a model for an edtech field manual for surviving the Higher Ed apocalypse.

Jim Groom,”Survival: the manual” July 7 2014

Thanks to Jim Groom, I’ve been thinking about Jaws in this plainly bizarre week in the short history of commercial MOOCs. For all its singular qualities, and for all the symbolic load placed on it by film theorists, Jaws is at heart an ordinary mystery: something unexpected and unexplained happens, someone goes missing, and everyone else spends the movie piecing together clues, disputing priorities, and dealing with what comes next.

But there’s a small scene in the middle that often gets forgotten, where two kids prank the holiday crowds at the beach with a cardboard fin—and in doing this set up the perfect opportunity for the real shark to glide in to calm water, unnoticed by everyone until it’s too late.

This week’s edtech weirdness had both mystery and something like a distracting prank, involving a MOOC in which the professor was yanked from view, then bobbed up again briefly, before vanishing again. Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a maths lecturer from the University of Zurich, put up a three-week course: “Teaching Goes Massive: New Skills Required” (#massiveteaching) through Coursera. The landing pages raise questions about the Coursera approval pathway and standards: two weeks of short RSA Animate style videos, and a final week where students will do more or less whatever they like in an “Experiment Area”. Dehaye is likeable, clear and thoughtful about his topic, but the videos aren’t elite brand rocket science—certainly, nothing that an informed and curious teacher in the office next door to you couldn’t have thought up.

And that should have been the first clue, I think. The course goal is “personal growth”, for which—thankfully—no certificate is offered, and the content is quite vague: “‘Readings’ will come naturally during the course as basis for discussion. … In the first week, we will provide a short summary of proposed content of the course. The content of the later weeks will be decided on by the students, and should cover the proposed content and more.”

But after the first week some or all of the content was deleted, and then Dehaye was himself removed, leaving enigmatic clues on Twitter, some participation in Metafilter discussions, some blog comments here and there (including on George Siemens’ blog), and a deleted Etherpad document that he wrote to explain his actions.

MOOCs can be used to enhance privacy, or really destroy it. I am in a real bind. I want to fight scientifically for the idea, yet teach, and I have signed contracts, which no one asks me about. If you ask me something, I can tell you where to look for the information. My plan becomes to flip the tables. I want to “break out” and forge an identity outside of the course, on Twitter, because I realize this is the only way for me to fight for this identity, engage with my students, and those big shots all simultaneously (journalists, educational analytics people, etc).  … Meanwhile I want everyone to organize their own learning, which I know is happening by looking a bit around. Some people don’t like my course, which is fine. It’s your choice, that’s part of the point. Still, I get lots of emails from coursera asking what is going on. A lot of pressure from them now. They are confused just like you were, and I intended to confuse them even more because they were not ready to challenge their own pedagogical practices fast enough, judging from past experience.

After blogger Apostolos K pointed out that these strange goings-on hadn’t attracted much coverage, and George Siemens wrote “Something Weird is Happening at Coursera“, the story was quickly picked up. Carl Straumsheim treated it as “The Mystery of the Missing MOOC” for Inside Higher Ed; Steve Kolowich covered it for The Chronicle first as a mystery (“In a MOOC Mystery, a Course Suddenly Vanishes“) and then as an experiment (“University of Zurich Says Professor Deleted MOOC to Raise Student Engagement“). Jonathan Rees had two goes at it, both worth reading: “The worst of the best of the best” on his own blog, and “Even super professors deserve academic freedom” for The Academe Blog. Rolin Moe, whose MOOC blog is touchingly subtitled “Debating, debriefing and defining the learning trend of 2012-“, wrote it up as “Dr Famous is Missing“.

By the end of the week, opinions diverged. Yesterday Michael Gallagher argued in a beautiful post that to exploit students in a research project raises questions of trust that can’t be overlooked even if the intent is to criticise (“Teaching vs. research and MOOC brouhahas“); today George Siemens congratulated Dehaye on starting a conversation about our vulnerability to commercial data mining by companies like Coursera.

I’m still absorbed by the freakishly odd coincidence of Dehaye’s co-authored take on a probability problem that’s apparently well known to mathematicians, involving 100 Prisoners And A Lightbulb, with George Siemens’ July 5 post (published just before all this turned into a thing) on the latent knowledge in any class, involving 100 learners in a room. This is Siemens, but could be Dehaye:

The knowledge and creative capacity of any class is stunning. Unfortunately, this knowledge is latent as the system has been architected, much like a dictatorship, to give control to one person. In many cases, students have become so accustomed to being “taught” that they are often unable, at first, to share their knowledge capacity. This is an experience that I have had in every MOOC that I’ve taught. The emphasis in MOOCs that I’ve been involved with is always on learners taking control, learners joining a network, or learners becoming creators. In a Pavolovian sense, many learners find this process disorienting and uninviting. We have been taught, after a decade+ of formal schooling, to behave and act a certain way. When someone encourages a departure from those methods, the first response is confusion, distrust or reluctance.

I’ll call my theory of knowledge and learning “100 people in a room”. If we put 100 people in a room, the latent knowledge capacity of that room in enormous. Everyone in this room has different life experiences, hobbies, interests, and knowledge. We could teach each other math, physics, calculus. We could teach poetry, different languages, and political theory. The knowledge is there, but it is disconnected and latent. Much of that knowledge is latent for two reasons: 1) We don’t know what others know, 2) connections aren’t made because we are not able with our current technologies to enable everyone to speak and be heard.

At the moment, I’m not sure that we know enough to be sure what the plan was with #massiveteaching. So I’m keeping an open mind to the possibility that what looked like a prank was an attempt to start a different conversation—including, and perhaps especially, with students—about the risks of corporate data mining and the lessons from Google advertisements or Facebook’s experiments with emotional manipulation. The fact that it didn’t work smoothly, and might make Coursera much more twitchy about allowing experimental course design in the future, shouldn’t necessarily be the measure by which it’s finally judged.

Meanwhile let’s keep one eye on the ocean where the real sharks are. As ever, the timely counsel in confusing times is from Jim Groom, who seems to me to be looking in the right direction:

I don’t know what it is, but Sharks remind me we are deeply vulnerable always.

Me too.


People are still writing about this. Two very good posts today:

According to Apostolos K, Coursera/U Zurich have resumed the course without Paul-Olivier Dehaye, which seems to me a reasonably complicated thing to do if the whole designed purpose of the enterprise originates with him. It’s a bit like the Mayor of Amity Island putting on the cardboard fin to prove that there’s no shark.


Down on main street

“We think it’s fair to ask the student to pay $3 extra a week to get the chance to earn a million dollars more over a lifetime than Australians without a university qualification. … Mr and Mrs Mainstreet are paying almost 60 per cent of the tuition fees of a uni student and they are also paying back the loan at the 10-year government bond rate of 3.8 per cent, whereas the student’s loan is indexed at CPI, currently 2.5 per cent,” Mr Pyne said.

Uni loan changes ‘cost $5 a week’, June 4

Since Christopher Pyne made fairness in higher education the surprise water cooler topic in this budget, there have been strongly negative reactions to the hiking up of student debt from all over the place. The government is now campaigning hard on the idea that fee reforms are both essential and inconsequential: the impact is tiny, the freedom is vast, and the overall costs are just as likely to go down as up (this is what the Minister calls the magic of the market, so do clap if you believe him.)

There are some practical problems with trying to pass off education debt as similar to other kinds of reputable middle-class debt, like mortgages or business loans, rather than, say, experience debts or gambling debts. Education might pay dividends in the end, but while it doesn’t, there’s no asset: no car to repossess, no house to put on the market, no shares to sell. Graduates who don’t go on to the full-time career for which they trained not only don’t see the promised premium earnings, but they can’t get a refund or put their degree on eBay. They’ve had the experience, and their numbers haven’t come up. Now they’re in a hole.

Behind this is the more important problem that there are no standards of responsible lending applied to education debt. If you’re offered a university place, you’re entitled to go into debt to complete your degree, just like that. It’s a no-doc loan of the worst kind, because it has to be — your future capacity to repay is itself the asset you’re going to debt to acquire. So no one’s responsible for even minimal risk evaluation of prospective undergraduates and their families. To put it brutally, universities can recruit underprepared students to make up numbers and protect their revenue stream, and at the moment have no real skin in the game when it comes to graduate employment.

Until now, the risk has more or less worked for Australian students even in non-vocational degrees because interest rates have been low, and it hasn’t worked for the lender because the incentive to repay is correspondingly weak. Students who have been able to pay fees up front have been better off, but not to a life-changing degree. But still, graduates have got stuck below the repayment threshold for a wide range of reasons, or have nicked off overseas, or have died with their debts unpaid. All of this amounts to a prediction that Australia could have $13bn in doubtful debt by 2017—a hill of beans compared to the trillion dollar toxic debt swamp in the US, but significant for a small education market like ours.

So it’s obvious why the government wants to adjust repayment terms: both to get more money back from those who repay tidily, and to use the threat of compounding interest to round up those who aren’t repaying much at all. It should be a low risk strategy: as owners of the national education debt pipeline, the government clearly expected to be able to tweak both interest rates and repayment thresholds while still offering a better deal than any commercial lender, and by these means to turn education debt into a more attractive asset.

But this is proving a hard sell. Having spent a lot of time at home this year, I’ve come to think that if Christopher Pyne had watched more daytime TV, he would understand why we’re not jumping at the idea. It’s because we know more than he realises about disreputable debt: last resort borrowing, predatory lending, and household debt that’s being juggled across multiple credit accounts. Australians at home are hassled all day long by TV commercials focused on compounding debts owed to intimidating lenders, and financial underpreparedness for illness, accident and death. This is what’s in the basement of our national consumer confidence: a realistic sense of how quickly debt picks off the most vulnerable in this prosperous economy.

Like someone spruiking a raw food juicer or a funeral plan to this frightened audience, the Minister has to work hard to convince us to turn a blind eye to what’s lurking in the shadows of deferred payment, and to focus instead on the transformative power of the product. It’s why he’s making his case at the highest perch of generalisation, glossing over earning disparity between male and female graduates, graduates in different disciplines, graduates living in different parts of the country (especially in the country parts of the country), graduates from different social backgrounds, and with variable levels of educational preparedness before they start their degrees. He’s also hoping we don’t understand the impact of part-time and precarious employment, regional employment, misadventure, illness, disability, parenting, or the fact that the economy itself is slowing down.

In fact, everything that makes a real difference to graduate lifetime earnings is invisible from the Minister’s penthouse, leaving us with the simplification repeated in speech after speech after speech: graduates will make 75% more than non-graduates, and in case we’re not sure what that is, why—it’s a million dollars.


Or not. Just as with cancer mortality modelling—about which I know a thing or two—the aggregates, multipliers and generalisations across a demographic slice that make up this million dollars are all bundled inside speculation about external variables, and can’t possibly predict what will happen with the accuracy required to judge the personal risk of going into long-term debt. When someone says “X life expectancy” or “Y lifetime earnings”, they’re pretty much saying “83% percent reduction in wrinkles”—it’s really up to you what you make of this as you stand at the counter with the wrinkle cream in your hand.

And yet the Minister’s gone on repeating his million dollar pitch long after even the friendliest economist has quietly pointed out that the facts are more complicated. Because this is exactly what you have when you don’t have responsible lending guidelines: a cheap and shouty sales pitch involving lifetime guarantees, a sprinkle of FOMO, and a miracle product. And he’s energetically trying to nudge Australian taxpayers into resenting university graduates, despite the evidence that Australian graduates themselves go on to become Australian taxpayers to a very significant degree.

Yesterday Stephen Matchett, in his excellent daily newsletter on Australian higher education, suggested that student debt has become the equivalent of the $7 Medicare co-payment to health reform: it’s the pill that the electorate just won’t swallow, no matter how it’s sugar coated. I think he’s right. What’s taken us all by surprise in this budget is that across every portfolio, with remarkable tin-ear consistency, the stakes have been pushed too high, the reasoning has been too lazy and too divisive, and the reactions of Australians to the central topic of budget fairness have been really widely misjudged.

Oh, and also, the rustling up of patronising stereotypes to explain it all is really wearing thin.


Seven dollars in modern Australia

“I think it’s a sad reflection on the modern Australian attitude that they can’t see that all areas have to make a contribution and they look at it as a narrow, sectional issue.”

Commission of Audit Chair, Tony Shepherd, on responses to the Federal Budget, May 23*

This week my daughter turned fifteen, and she went to the doctor—a political act in modern Australia.

She went because of a constellation of puzzling symptoms which we’ve been sort of monitoring for a few months. Finally, we came to the conclusion that these symptoms are persistent, significant, and affecting her school attendance, and we couldn’t diagnose them ourselves. So off she went.

Our GP asked her questions, considered the symptoms widely, and sent her home with the trifecta of health care copayment: a prescription, and referrals to both pathology and diagnostics.

Whether these tests find something, or nothing, she learned something that will affect her future health care costs, which are entirely likely to fall on Australia’s public health system; someone who is neither a teacher nor a parent listened to her, and took her puzzling symptoms seriously, in a trustable way. And she learned a bit about how the system itself works, and what happens when you ask for help.

At fifteen, she’s entering a period of consequence well known to health professionals. Over the next few years, she’ll either take or avoid the risks that will have long-term impacts on her adult health and wellbeing. Thanks to this positive encounter with someone who minded enough to ask tactful, sensible questions, it’s just fractionally more likely that she will know that Australia’s health workers have her back. So whatever the technical results of this visit, she learned something that will last but will be very difficult for our healthcare system to measure as a positive impact.

I was thinking about this when I read this morning’s remarks by the Chair of the Commission of Audit, the group that advised the Federal Government that we bring an end to the principles of universal health care in Australia. These are the principles that mean that any teenager can learn how teenagers should be able to access healthcare services at no cost.** And here’s the thing: although we’re public health care patients, we already don’t attend a bulk billing GP practice, so the fact that the proposed health care copayments have come to matter to me as much as they do isn’t self-interested or sectional—even in the context of cancer treatment.

I can’t believe we have to spell this out in modern Australia, but what matters here is the fairness of ensuring that those who are already the most disadvantaged get the benefits of whatever we can collectively provide. This is why it’s so important that teenagers’ access to the people and services who will make most difference to their later health (and the later health costs that they impose on all of us) isn’t determined by their capacity to pay. Teenagers are minimum wage workers if they’re lucky, and they’re not all safely located in a family who can pay for them. Seven dollars is a big deal; twenty-eight dollars even more so.

So although I’m not generally one for marching and placards, tomorrow I’ll be joining the local rally to save our Medicare system from these damaging, divisive healthcare cuts, and it’s quite likely that I’ll do it again next weekend in Sydney.

This really is a turning point for modern Australia, and the evidence all around us is that Tony Shepherd is decisively wrong: it’s precisely because of how this affects other people that so many of us are taking to the streets.


If you want to know more about the Save Medicare campaign, it’s here. Do also check out Co-Payment Stories. There are campaigns being run by medical researchers who don’t want the promised squillions for their research at this social and health cost; and campaigns being run by doctors and nurses also. The coverage of all of it at Croakey blog is excellent, and there’s a Pozible crowd funding campaign to support South Western Sydney GP Tim Senior to write for Croakey here.

The Save Medicare Rally in Wollongong is at midday on Saturday 24th May, and there’s another in Sydney on 31st May.

If you’re not a marcher, here are some petitions:

And really, there’s something about this maddening Budget that is also very inspiring: its fundamental unfairness has proved that we can all still see beyond “narrow and sectional issues” to something worth standing for.


* I read this article thanks to Mary-Helen Ward.

** Thanks to Tim Klapdor for the reminder that in many regional centres there are already no bulk billing options. I’m curious about the source of our Health Minister’s “Having 70% of non-concessional patients bulk-billed is unsustainable.”  


A couple of beers

I can think of no more significant benefit from community contributions in health than to invest in cure and discovery research by our people for our people … As a result, it may be an Australian who discovers better treatments and even cures for dementia, Alzheimer’s, heart disease or cancer. If we start investing now, this new and historic commitment in medical research may well save your life, or that of your parents, or your child.

Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, Budget speech,  May 13

It’s been a while, but I’m still here. Cancer treatment is an absorbing, revealing, boring, depleting experience, sometimes all on the same day. The drugs used to treat cancer have powerful side effects, and the drugs to alleviate their side effects have side effects, and sometimes these drugs also provoke allergies, both allergies to the drugs, and triggered allergies to other things.

Cancer is also administratively taxing—there are forms, and appointments, and deadlines, and things to remember, all at a time when chemotherapy and Mariana Trench depths of fatigue make it quite hard to finish sentences.

Then there’s the way cancer messes with the people who love you, and disrupts their experience of work, school, and everyday life, and at the same time surrounds you with the kindness of both friends and strangers. All of this deserves time and care and attention.

And finally there’s the weird billboard politics of cancer, which means that it rears up when you least expect it. This week my daughter joined a local soccer team, and I found myself frozen at the washing machine holding up a soccer shirt that says “Are You Breast Cancer Aware?”

Gosh, yes we are, thanks for asking.

Cancer also popped up this week in Australia’s Federal budget, as our Treasurer tried to sell a proposed services tax on GP visits, blood tests, diagnostic imaging and prescriptions that will disproportionately whack patients in cancer treatment, in the name of an imaginary Australian funded by revenue from this impost who finds a cure for cancer. You couldn’t make this up.

Because I’ve had more to do with Medicare in the last six months than I have in the twenty years since I emigrated, I really mind about this rubbish. The fact that my breast cancer was diagnosed at all was the result of GP visits when I was reluctant to think that I had something to worry about. GPs are critical to early cancer detection; any barrier to GP access is one that risks much more significant costs to our public health system later on. So it really doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of health budgeting.

When copayment for health services was first mooted, we heard quite a bit about behavioural economics: if people had to pay for their access to no-longer-universal healthcare, they’d be more conservative in their use of it. So it was genuinely surprising when copayment extended to pathology services. Are we really now suggesting that chemo patients, as well as others with chronic disease, should think twice about out-of-hospital blood tests or X-rays? Or do we think these patients should rock up to Emergency Departments and hospital pathology departments (which are two different things) to get their blood taken?  Even though chemo patients specifically require disruptive special treatment when they get there, because of their heightened risk of infection?

On the other hand, do we really think that local pathology collection centres will run more efficiently if they have to figure out how to process these copayments for everyone, now they’re not allowed to take cash?

The Treasurer’s answer to this has been to swerve towards another imaginary Australian, an idler with all the wrong priorities. I was standing in the middle of my kitchen on Thursday morning when this insulting nonsense came out of the radio:

But, but, I’d say to you, Chris, one of the things that quite astounds me is some people are screaming about $7 co-payment. One packet of cigarettes cost $22. That gives you three visits to the doctor. You can spend just over $3 on a middy of beer, so that’s two middies of beer to go to the doctor.

Let’s have some perspective about the costs of taking care of our health. And is a parent really going to deny their sick child a visit to the doctor which would be the equivalent payment of a couple of beers or one-third of a packet of cigarettes?

This is a crude and stupid switch from the conventional “price of a cup of coffee” device governments flourish when they want to persuade us that rising costs are trivial. Trading beer and cigarettes for healthy choices is just so much more obvious. It’s the foundation of responsible citizenship, isn’t it?

Except that, as the interviewer wearily pointed out, this stereotype of the delinquent parent choosing another beer over their children’s health trivialises the pressure on low-income families, that aren’t confined to simple choices between one modest thing and another. Sometimes neither are within reach, even if this is very hard to imagine from a more privileged position.

So now think about the parent on welfare in a country town whose sick child’s health visits includes travel costs, that will now be hiked up by rising fuel prices. Or imagine the parent of a sick child who’s also trying to hang on to part-time study, facing rising tuition costs and the prospect of significantly increased interest rates on deferred loan repayment.

And these imaginary parents aren’t sequestered from the rest of the economy. So have a think about the person who’s serving that beer: probably young, perhaps also a uni student, maybe another parent, about to be hit by changes to welfare for the under 30s. Discretionary spending on small items like a cup of coffee or a beer aren’t trivial to the casual workforce sector they hold up, who in turn are making choices about what they can afford. The retail and services precariat are always the canaries in the mine of consumer sentiment, the first to feel it when a combination of factors limits the money left over from food, rent and cost to work. This is behavioural economics.

Anyone can play the game of the imaginary Australian, and sometimes it’s good for us to do this—it’s a really basic exercise in political empathy. But the point of a universal healthcare system is that we don’t have to trade in these limiting stereotypes. Instead, we accept that we all win when these most basic healthcare services aren’t withheld—from anyone—for the price of a couple of beers.

So as both a taxpayer and a public health cancer patient, and with all due respect to my university colleagues in medical research, I don’t care whether cancer is cured by an Australian. I don’t. But I really do care about the experience of other Australians living with serious and chronic illness. If making it easier to see GPs, access pathology services and fill prescriptions helps reduce the numbers of people who go on to need hardcore (and costly) medical care, and then also reduces the cost of living through treatment itself, that really is something to defend.


Seriously, Mister Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


For Leon Fuller

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

The Campus is Dead: Long Live The Campus

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

Do Trees Have Rights“?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illawarra Mercury, “Field Guide to the Landscape We Love

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

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

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

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

Here’s to you, Leon Fuller.


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