“Wider lessons”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until they don’t. Until they can’t.

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

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

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

As you were. Nothing to see here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some days hope is really very difficult to sustain.

Update

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

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

* Update 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— KB

Showing up

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

Nick Cave, “The Weeping Song

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shut up.

4.

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

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

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

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

With our own meaning

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

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Short version: it’s about this.

Please donate.

Long version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I came out smarter, better at listening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not done yet

for so many this year, but especially for Audrey Watters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next for the LMS?

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

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

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

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

This is the state of things as a bar chart:

LMS 'global' market share data, Edutechnica blog
LMS ‘global’ market share data, edutechnica.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Calling it out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yikes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now we really have both feet in the quicksand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For G.M. and R.C.

 

Amongst colleagues

It’s been great to feel supported and people reaching out to make sure I’m doing okay. It was my first experience with global worldwide Internet heat wrath, and it was very difficult. I will admit. My family paid a price for it. I paid a price, but I feel much better being amongst colleagues.

Jeff Hancock, co-author of the Facebook Emotions Study,  Microsoft Research Faculty Summit special session (transcript: Mary L Gray)

Remember #massiveteaching? The Coursera MOOC in which the actions of the instructor seemed strange to many? Probably not. Social media and edtech journalism have churned on for another few weeks, strange and terrible things have happened in the world, and the story has been buried under the next truckload of news and opinion landfill, right alongside the story of #foemooc and those few other cases where a MOOC went off piste.

By the time the story was picked up by higher education media, it had stabilised around the question of human research ethics, and got tangled up with the controversy surrounding the just-published Facebook Emotions Study. The consensus settled: Paul-Olivier Dehaye had also been engaged in improper experimentation on students without their knowledge or consent. And from there it snowballed, not just into what had happened, but why. He was an ego-driven child, a manipulator, an abuser of trust, a novice who hadn’t done his homework, a saboteur, a jerk, a punk.

Dehaye’s few statements didn’t clear anything up, and it helped even less when he said nothing. People who were already appalled by Facebook, but couldn’t get hold of Mark Zuckerberg to shake by the ears, suddenly had a far less powerful figure—and seemingly erratic communicator—to hold up as the test case for stupid.

The Coursera factor contributed. Their trumpeting about super professors and elite institutions has made us all very weary of the celebrity academic, and has introduced a fair game attitude to what Chuck Severance rightly calls anti-MOOC schadenfreude. Surely when someone accepts the reputational coin and then drops it in public, we get to exercise our indignation in a general way, even if we don’t know the facts entirely?

This is the swamp that we’ve all been dragged into by MOOCcorp. We’ve been hustled along by their entrepreneurial haste to create new educational markets, without thinking through the professional and personal risks facing ordinary university teachers who step in front of a global class of thousands. Many of them have not been celebrities at all, even in their own disciplines; they’re not chosen on the basis of experience in online teaching, but because they work at high ranking institutions.

Some have been great at it; some have left their audiences cold. Some have risen to the challenge of negative feedback in a way that should make us all blush. All of them have been put through the mincer of public opinion on their voice, their clothes, their teaching styles, their syllabus, their expertise. They’ve been upvoted and dumped on and blogged about, often by an audience of their peers.

And they’ve survived all this while delivering to MOOCcorp the real product: big fat research datasets with big fat commercial value. This week Gregor Kennedy, Pro Vice Chancellor of Educational Innovation at the University of Melbourne (also a Coursera partner), described this as “incredibly helpful”, without a blush:

Learning analytics use the digital data trails that students leave in online learning environments to develop an understanding of students’ learning processes. Every video watched, quiz answered and comment posted can be tracked, mined and analysed to better understand how students are learning online. Researchers are able to capitalise on the big data sets generated by tens of thousands of MOOC students to uncover productive and unproductive patterns of learning behaviour.

These patterns can be related to a range of other variables such as students’ socio-economic or cultural background, their previous education and prior knowledge, and their motivation to study. They can also be used to predict when students will drop out, whether they will pass the course, or whether they will get a high distinction.

OK then. Clearly the prospect of opportunistic and experimental research using student data without any clear boundaries around aims or potential use (“can be related to … students’ socio-economic or cultural background”), and deploying the lowest possible standard of informed consent, isn’t always a problem—or we’d be blogging up a storm about Gregor Kennedy.

But we’re not, because we have already rolled on this one. We know about the algorithms that recommend books, nudge us towards friends, and parse our interests into a grammar of decision-making potential. We understand that we’ve left our digital fingerprints on everything, and concede that students must have too, so we might as well collect them. This means that MOOCs are already capitalising on the free gift of huge data sets, while privacy and ethics experts are still drafting recommendations for good practice.

Paul-Olivier Dehaye was also pursuing these questions. Watching one of his Coursera office hours I learned that the experiment he talked about wasn’t about pulling stunts to see how students would react, but something much more prosaic: developing criteria for open badges that would reflect peer collaboration across platforms as well as within. Sure, he says “experiment” a lot when he could simply say “test” and cause much less fuss; but his views on issues that MOOCs have introduced to traditional higher education are widely shared. In particular, although he’s a MOOC supporter in a general sense, he’s not alone in recognising the problem that will have to be addressed in order to make MOOCs sustainable over time:

It is in some ways a struggle of power between different institutions, between the professor, between the school, and between the platform itself. … and if you want I am fighting for the professor here, to make sure the professor has a space in this fight.

I went through the whole two hours, and found no evidence of someone trying either to sabotage or proselytise for particular modes of online learning, or planning to play any kind of trick. What he was testing was straightforwardly technical, aimed at helping learners manage their own data across multiple open online platforms. In particular, I was interested in his ideas about using badges to credit the practices of mutual care and support that really help online communities work, and which are often achieved away from the chaotic environment of MOOC forums, and are lost to analytic reach. So I can’t imagine Coursera being thrilled with any of this—or his home institution being particularly interested—but these principles shouldn’t set anyone’s hair on fire.

Why did he bail on the course? This is something only he can answer. Coursera and his home institution, with all the advantages of professional PR and ready access to educational media, moved swiftly to put out their version of what happened, and the course continued without him. We can’t be surprised at this; universities all over the place are fortifying their brands against risk, especially on social media. But we can be concerned, as it seems that when two powerful institutions are involved, it’s very unclear who takes care of the individual who was working on their behalf.

So this leaves the rest of us, as colleagues to whom he might have been able to turn for support. At the time I raised some of my concerns with Maha Bali, who was also writing about this. Social media in general, and MOOCs in particular, have caught us all without a considered standard for responding when our academic colleagues get into difficulty in public forums. This is what makes Twitter so painful, so much of the time. It’s what makes us come off as judgmental and cliquey when we’re operating within our existing networks, and careless with the professional and personal consequences of the way we talk about others.

George Siemens, who was one of the few who wrote sympathetically about Paul-Olivier Dehaye, congratulated him for starting a conversation that we need to have about MOOCs. I’m late to it, but I’m saying the same—not only for starting a conversation, but for surviving its aftermath. I’m really delighted to see that he’s writing a blog, and is active again on Twitter, and I hope that this time he feels that he’s amongst colleagues.