Countable things

Across so many realms of their operations, universities really like countable things.  We like metrics and tables and charts and the sparkling virtuosity of key performance indicators marching across a spreadsheet. We like performance to be scored, we like impact factors and citation indices, and we really love rank.

We even tabulate the emotional intangibles of workplace culture like “satisfaction”. Among other things, this leads to the slightly odd moment when university staff are surveyed to find out how they feel, and the results come back six months later from HR administration as two stapled pages of gaily coloured bar charts.

Alessandro Portelli’s ‘Philosophy and the Facts’ condenses the problem of this fascination with data perfectly. Portelli writes about the demand made of freed slave Frederick Douglass that he confine himself to facts in his autobiography, and leave the interpretation to better qualified others, and he goes on to look at the problem of trying to generate analytics of human experience:

Nobel Prize winner Robert Fogel and his colleague Stanley D. Engerman in their classic Time on the Cross did not concern themselves with the feelings of those who whipped and were whipped, but concentrated instead on counting the number of lashes. By means of ample documentary sources and sophisticated means of statistical analysis, they reached the conclusion that slaves were likely to be whipped an average of 0.7 times per year.

This is a legitimate, even necessary approach, because it guarantees a degree of abstraction that allows us to formulate general hypotheses, rules, and interpretations. On the other hand, while we are thankful for abstraction, we need to remind ourselves that it also involves a great deal of simplification.

I think it’s worth keeping the risk of simplification in mind as we look at the kinds of concealment ciphers that circulate in higher education. Sandi Mann’s 2009 research into student boredom resurfaced this week, for example. Her findings were that 60% of students found at least half their lectures boring, and 30% of students finding most or all lectures boring. And there’s more:

We found that students adopt a variety of strategies to cope with boring lectures. The most popular are daydreaming (75% of students admitted doing this), doodling (66%), chatting to friends (50%), sending texts (45%), and passing notes to friends (38%). Over a quarter of students leave the lecture at the mid-session break.

I don’t question that it’s useful to know what students are doing in lectures, but really, the quantification of self-reported daydreaming is fairly near my personal limit for treating countability as a research virtue, as the 0.7 average was for Portelli.

There are some sets of numbers, however, that occasionally rear up and smack you in the face like a big wave at the beach. One of these involves university staffing data. The Australian has published the findings of a recalculation of university staff-student ratios conducted by Emeritus Professor Frank Larkins for the L H Martin Institute. Adjusting the formula to exclude the full-time equivalent presence of the army of casuals currently standing in front of classes all around the country, Frank Larkins suggests that the national average is 1.34, rather than the often quoted 1:20; and that this has risen sharply from 1:25 in 2000.

But really, it does get worse than this. The Australian has extended the study to look at individual institutional ratios expressed in this average, and say that in some institutions the ratio is 1:50.  (Although to be fair to those institutions, the response from one has been to explain that if the recalculation excludes casual academics, it should by the same token include full-time staff employed at partner institutions who are actually teaching the students.)

I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from focusing on exactly which institutions are operating under these more desperate conditions except to say that the more favourable ratios involve universities with quadrangles, so no surprises there. The simple point is that Australia’s tenured academics who feel that there are fewer of us to go around for every other task, particularly including committee work, curriculum development and administration, are right.

And the increasing number of young and not-so-young Australian academics working off the tenure track, many of whom are PhD qualified and with impressive publication records, would also be right to see that there is long-term do-more-with-less strategic planning at work here, even as the actual hiring practices of most institutions still present themselves, disingenuously, as tactical responses to short-term staffing problems.

This means that if these ratios are set for the next little while, then we need to figure out what conditions and opportunities could conceivably make casual or adjunct employment in higher education a productive career choice in itself. What kinds of support, training, mentoring, or even simple practices of professional appreciation, could help to offset the more demoralising aspects of the adjunct career?

Otherwise, you know, they’re just not going to show up.  And at that point, we’ll really have to hope that the edtech money pouring into adaptive learning is going to produce machine-graded self-managed higher educational experiences, really quickly.

And we’ll have to find a very convincing way to sell this to prospective students and their families as an experience worth the debt.

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