Faith

I think about the day a person dies, how the morning is just a morning, a meal is just a meal, a song is just a song. It’s not the last morning, or the last meal, or the last song. It’s all very ordinary, and then it’s all very over.

The space between life and death is a moment.

Stephanie Wittels Wachs, ‘Yahrzeit

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The internet is curled in on itself with grief, again. Someone loved and admired and puzzled over and copied and with a place in so many hearts through songs we sing in the car and lost times in our own lives, our own gone selves, that someone has gone and died. In a last blurry photograph of an out of the way moment, there he is right in the act of being ordinary, walking back to his car outside the pharmacy. What does he know? Does he know that it’s today?

The best piece I read was Tressie McMillan Cottom getting right to the core of why this death holds our attention, and how even someone beyond the circle of our own kin and people, can still rip into skin.

We took the road most traveled and there are no detours for the foreseeable future. That kind of genius died today and with it went my faith.

Celebrity death fills the space after loss with wild-eyed explanations and suggestions, as one thing gives way to another. The scene of death is explained again and again, events gather together and take on significance. The day that could have begun and ended like every other, ended differently.

And look, there they are, big pharma’s gleaming fishhooks. Percocet. Oxycodone.

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Stephanie Wittels Sachs writes about the anniversary of her brother’s death, and the Jewish tradition of lighting a Yahrzeit candle on the memorial day at the end of a year of mourning, that burns for 24 hours. Two months later, and it’s his birthday. In a beautiful essay on the struggle to sustain empathy among strangers online, she tells this story:

My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it. He died of a heroin overdose last February.

This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.

In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”

Hard as it is to imagine from here, her essay becomes a powerful defence of empathy as the recuperation of our capacity to care for strangers, even those we feel most secure in shaming.

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But. And.

In his writing on generosity, Arthur Frank calls on Levinas for the concept of alterity, as something fundamental to being human. We are not other because of location or opportunity or type, or because of any of the big markers of diversity (however important these are for other reasons) or any of the particular things we have gone on to do. Alterity—being other—is the condition of being a person in the first place.

For Frank, this is a useful way of approaching the symbolic violence of medical diagnosis and treatment, that tries to discipline alterity, to bundle it into thinkable categories. All the institutions we work in depend on this kind of classificatory busywork: tagging, sorting and ranking of humans like it’s a good thing that we can do this. We add a little science and call it analytics, but what we’re doing here is profoundly social and shot through with tiny fears: we’re trying to sort out the confronting alterity of the human crowd into patterns we can tolerate, so we know who to join up with, who to work on, who to exclude.

In Frank’s reading of Levinas, this poses an uncomfortable question about empathy. When we look at what someone else is going through and mistake our empathic reaction for their suffering, we blanket their experience with our own. Empathy places alterity under strain.

Empathy tends towards unification: either my projecting what would make me feel better onto you, or my fusing with your suffering. … Seeing the face requires alterity. I must recognise that there are aspects of your suffering that I can never imagine and I can never touch.

Restraint: it’s a tough standard for times of social grieving, when it feels as though we’re all keening and wailing through our common loss of faith. But maybe getting straight with this loss of faith might be a way that we can build something new together.

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It’s been a year. Many of us stayed awake all night, keeping candles in our windows and our thoughts, while the rusted machinery of state killing—that has no place at all in this world, none—cranked into action and flung itself on the bodies of people who were already as subjugated to the forces of the world opiate market as anyone else.

When Myuran Sukumaran died, Australia lost a courageous, graceful and visionary thinker, someone who was actively making a better world.

I can’t imagine his mother’s loss. It’s beyond anything I could claim to touch.

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All this was meant to be gone long ago,

votive lamps, lighting candles,

bowing towards some holy centre of the earth,

yet sometimes we have to

gather up the four corners of our lives,

like the corners of a tablecloth,

to shake out the crumbs;

sometimes we need light

for a journey,

sometimes we even need to bow.

Moya Cannon, ‘Midday at Stockholm Airport’

I’m not a person of faith in any religious sense, not at all, but reading this beautiful poem I wonder if maybe mortality itself can stand in for faith at times like this. It gives us a sense of scale, after all, and a reason to stay awake.

for Tressie

Heresy and kindness

There’s too much to do in too little time with too little money to be world-class in everything we do. What we can and should do is recognise the limits of what’s possible and encourage people to do their best – and I don’t just mean that managers need to do better. We all need a little more humanity.

The Plashing Vole, Good enough

Here’s a tale. When I first started thinking about how to write in public about the experience of working in a university, I looked around for models that seemed to me to do it well. I found Dean Dad and Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and from both of them learned a lot about writing about college leadership. But I wanted to find people who were figuring out how to write higher education from below. And because I’m generally a lucky type, I stumbled in short order on Bon Stewart, Jonathan Rees and the Plashing Vole.

I was really struck by how prolific, gifted and funny these writers were, and how they used their online writing as a way of reaching beyond the everyday of where they were to struggle with issues that were recognisable to me, all the way down here in Australia. But I also learned new things: refrigerators! fencing! NUFC! credit transfer! And all five of them made space in their comments for others to learn how to write publicly. For me, this was essential as I was still writing anonymously and worrying whether critique of my own employer’s business culture crossed some kind of line in terms of professional conduct.

So the first important lesson I learned from these five is that online writing is a practice of scholarly hospitality. In these hands, writing handled itself differently from the slugfest of competitive self-advancement that I had seen writing become in universities, a chronic depletion of purpose for most people sucked into it.

In these hands, writing showed itself as a gesture of welcoming curiosity. Online writing in particular offered a new way of handling lightly the big tickets: citation, evidence, reputation, impact. Online public writing allowed itself to be tentative, to let unfinished thoughts hang, to engage with difficult issues without fixing prematurely on solutions. Scholarly writers shepherding their ideas in public without benefit of editors and peer reviewers, and without the protection of a ten metre paywall, turned out to be intelligent, capable and accountable managers of their own intelligence: who knew?

And so writing for me was gently rescued from its service role in generating outputs for measuring, and returned to a closer relationship to enquiry. I learned how to write in order to think. Here were scholars producing a couple of thousand words a week without distress, contributing timely, relevant expertise to the history of human thought and if you had a question or objection, you could just bowl up and ask them, and they replied.

Isn’t this what we all think the academy is supposed to do in the world?

From this small group, who didn’t necessarily all cross paths with each other, I grew an online network that has been a rich and sustaining professional culture for me. Their links and citations have led me forwards and outwards into other conversations where new evidence is continually turning up, new ideas are continually in the act of forming, and critical reflection is the (mostly) welcomed response. This week one of the radiating circuits of this network in action brought me a question about how to frame academic event management with a rigorous commitment to postcolonial theories of self and subjectivity; another asked how kindness and diversity co-habit in academic teams and organisations. All of these questions develop me as a thinker and a teacher.

So I want to take a moment and thank the Plashing Vole for his beautiful and widely circulated post on kindness, struggle and modesty. His championing of ethical mediocrity is a heretical proposition in higher education at the moment, but like all his writing, it’s a disarming bit of very smart thinking disguised as a chat. PV tells a story about an everyday logistical failure (a room not booked, a class underprepared) and he does it with such generosity and detail that I can still easily picture his students trudging from campus to campus with him, trying not to think about the Duchess of Malfi. We’ve all been there.

But his larger point is that all organisations need to cultivate a culture of kindness if these errors are to be bearable, and to do this we need to accept that rhetorical focus on 4* publications and the stellar careers of the few won’t sustain the culture that actually supports both. To keep universities operating, not only those universities with convictions about educational equity, we need to accept, and model, failure as a fundamental part of the innovation curve. We need to learn, and model, the kindest way of giving feedback if something seems awry.

And to do this, we need to create and then militantly protect practices of interpersonal safety and care across the higher education system. This means that we do need to ask our institutions to mind their language as they describe our thrilling futures, and we need to be especially vigilant during times of “change management”, whose very language is now doing harm to many. But PV is very specific—and I agree—that this isn’t just a problem that managers can fix.

We all need a little more humanity.

So I don’t think it’s just because I’m off to Mary Freer’s gathering of kindness for healthcare reform, but because I’m watching an extraordinary response to PV’s post, and to the ones that others wrote just before it, especially Liz Morrish. There is a will to value kindness in higher education at the moment, as a better culture for generating ideas, proposals and critical thought for the world we’re in.

I’m watching events and collaborations developing all over the place (looking at you #digpedlab and #indieedtech), and while I’m not sure any longer that we can or should try to fix higher education, I’m really optimistic that by working together, educators and learners at every level, we can develop a sense of purpose about how to care for this planet.

In a hundred years, we won’t be here, but we are all here now.

Plashing Vole, this one’s for you. 

Unleashed

As international mobility increases, competition for the best academic and professional staff will also intensify. This is why we’re unleashing our staff’s performance, reducing complexity and optimising professional achievements.

This week the university that employs me released its new Strategic Plan with accompanying changes to our brand identity, vocabulary and collateral. Tucked into this bundle is a video that I can’t stop watching. There are images and sounds I genuinely don’t understand, and a faintly audible sigh about halfway through. (What is that?)

And then suddenly there it is: the context and strategic approach to staffing in graphic form. There’s a crowded screen of huddled moving white dots among which a smaller number of apparently superior red dots start to vibrate, and then the scene implodes into a giant red superdot: human complexity agitated, reduced and finally upsized to a single ball of unleashed performativity.

I’m not making this up.

The video is here to tell us who we are and what we stand for, and it kicks off with a cliche we’d plead with all student writers to rethink:

In this time of unprecedented change …

The conceit of epochal change is a reliable headline. Here’s the Australian Prime Minister late last year on becoming the leader that unprecedented times demand:

There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.

OK, but saying it’s so doesn’t make it so. And even the claim to unprecedentedness itself isn’t unprecedented. It’s a normal, regularly appearing way of romancing what we’re going through. It’s a strategic move, that demands that we abandon modest efforts and incremental, careful practices; it mobilises us to the barricades of whatever—innovation, disruption, competition—trampling each other as we go.

And it’s more or less a cliche in return to point out that history’s filled with times just as unprecedented as this one, dressed up as both novelty and emergency in order to muscle forward someone’s agenda. Things are new. Action is demanded. We are living in a way that no one has lived before, and we need extraordinary, heroic measures to respond. Resistance is not only futile, but in itself—like a protest against the existence of God that only proves believers have a point—sceptical thinking sustains the case that this is exactly why we need to act quickly and without question. Didn’t we tell you academics are resistant to change? Q.E.D.

Sometimes we don’t really understand what was happening until later. Here’s Wordsworth, famously, on the French revolution:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
          But to be young was very heaven!--Oh! times,
          In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
          Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
          The attraction of a country in romance!

The problem with a country—or a sector—in romance is that we lose sight of something important: change is a wide, muddy current, and some parts move slowly while others appear to race. Catastrophes at the level of epidemic, global war, and climate disaster somehow share time with artisanal breadmaking and notes written on the backs of beer mats and the sun rising steadfastly every day. We don’t live in any one time, but many times, all happening together, all amounting to something.

And in each life lived in these unprecedented times we have to figure out what is enough for us, and enough to give, so that we can get on and survive the encroachments of big claims on our attention, our action, our loyalties to each other’s care. Figuring out what is enough is how we each hold on to the clover of our own values, and protect the thing we’re trying to protect, the small and hopeful thing we came here to do.

So after a day of thinking about what I find exasperatingly cruel about the vision for higher education exposed in this video, I’m stuck with the problem of how to speak about it without collapsing into a sort of snark. It’s easy to get cranky with cliche, and to feel righteous about what’s absolutely wrong with this representation of a university. But the video isn’t intended to be watched closely or pulled apart, and from its opening words it’s making no pretence at all to be in the deep end of anyone’s pool. So it’s fair game at one level, and yet truly it should be left alone if we are all to stand for any kind of generosity in these times.

This is a focus for me at the moment. In a couple of weeks I’m off to attend an event that’s bringing together about a hundred people who have an interest in building a healthcare system in Australia based on valuing kindness to both patients and staff. I’m there because I’m following a research line of thought about how patients and staff in long term treatment relationships (in chemotherapy, for example) ease the stress and anxiety in the encounter by telling each other small stories about themselves. In taking the time to greet each other by name, to ask after family, or even how the day is going, people make hospitals and clinics better to be in for everyone. Humane gestures make humane workplaces.

I’m working on this project with a radiation technologist who treated me, and a narrative professional working at the same hospital, who interviewed me as part of a review of cancer services. Together we’re examining very closely an everyday treatment incident and its aftermath, and on this basis we’re learning how to use critical incident reflection techniques to help both staff and patients respond to one another in stressful situations.

So with this commitment in mind, I’m trying to shift my response to this video. The culture of higher education staffing is desperate for many at the moment, and is often directly implicated in serious illness (to read more about this see here and here and here and here and anything to do with casualisation). Richard Hall has just pulled together many notes on academic overwork here, and he writes this:

I see the recounting of how the ongoing pain of academic reproduction, the constant reinvention of the academic Self in Student Satisfaction scores, relentless research publication and scholarship, entrepreneurial activity and knowledge transfer, workload management, performance management, is obliterating a meaningful life. This is overwork that obliterates the possibility that the academic might reproduce herself socially, because there is no time for care of the Self. That time is academically unproductive; unproductive for a life that is for work. And yet it also demands a level of productivity that is never enough. That can never be good enough.

In the climate of harm that Richard and many of us are now calling out, I do think that it matters that videos like this get scripted, and funded, and produced, and launched, and slapped onto university webpages. Real human damage is done when we describe employment as if it’s a sporting contest that only the best can win. It’s not even terrific business sense given that we actually need to unleash quite a few more people than this stellar minority for the shop to open at all. And this talk that ranks humans doing beautiful, capable, ethically committed work as “best” or not? It’s shaming and demoralising, and it completely underestimates the irreducible complexity of universities as harbours of human thought.

But it’s no good just complaining, even to sympathetic audiences. To change this culture, we need to do as the healthcare system is doing, and advocate for an alternative. We need to hear from one another, including from the people who think videos like this are helpful. Simply saying competition is divisive won’t raise standards for collaboration, and won’t create the grounds for hope. To do this, we urgently need to start collecting new stories and evidence of a different culture forged in kindness, that we know we can build together.

Then maybe we need to start making our own videos.

Standing room only

architects

What do you stand for? Who are you? How can you know that—and operate from that position of power?

bell hooks

There are times that it’s hard to know what to say. Things seem to ask for a response, even just a raised hand to say “Here”. But how to start with this world?

This week I discovered that the place where I work has a new brand tagline, and this is it:

Stands For Purpose

(It’s not that bad. My daughter’s primary school has Strive to Excel. Although this one’s apparently on the back of buses, which is about as funny as it gets.)

While I was still trying to figure out my own misgivings, let alone whether it’s legitimate to express them publicly (because brand) I came across a widely shared clip of bell hooks explaining how as a feminist she doesn’t find herself able to support Hillary Clinton’s run for President. In this one minute explainer, drawing down the powerful words of James Baldwin, she nails it for me: there are these identities we’re meant to embody with force and conviction, and yet they may not in any given situation represent the values that we stand for.

Values aren’t corporate mission statements or brand collateral because they’re personal. I suspect this is even true of people with faith, which I’m not. Values aren’t practices of compliance with institutional rhetoric, they can’t be. Values are who we are, and the only reliable source of our power to act in this world because they’re earned, through difficult experiences that make us proud of ourselves. Values separate us from machines and the stars. Our values make it possible to operate with intent, to think independently, to settle for ourselves the big question of how to live, what counts as enough.

So while I respect that this standing for purpose is the mission of my institution, and that it’s standing room only all the way to our chosen destination in the world university rankings, something else is tugging at me, something closer to what I’m learning that I stand for.

At the end of last year, I was asked a big question by someone whose thoughts are really precious to me. Are things getting worse, do you think? he said. And it’s complicated. The mood swings towards pessimism. Will children exposed to television ever play in cornfields again? Will the economy ever pick up? Will the planet survive our occupation of it? And because hard times have come again before, no one wants to get caught naively thinking things are different now. So we muffle our disquiet, because we’re not sure if our moment in history is a landmark or a decisive moment, or just another weary day.

But I think he’s really asking something about us, not just about what’s happening: are we the crowd applauding, whistling, cheering as the ice bridge caves in to the sea?

For me, the question is about work. Is it getting worse, and are we at risk of applauding as it does so, because we’re so busy standing for the spectacular, when we should be sitting and thinking very carefully about what it tells us about environmental cause and consequence?

I take this to be a question about employment as a whole, but the case study I understand best is employment in higher education. And because our role is to educate, it really matters how we manage our own working. Whatever we speculate in marketing or curriculum about the future of work, the practice we model to students everyday is how we occupy our own jobs now. Every time we meet, students learn from us how we sustain a critical professional voice as we go about our careers—and how we do this constructively, pragmatically and optimistically.

So let’s do this openly, and see what happens.

This week Liz Morrish has written an extraordinary post about breaking the code of silence in conversations with students about academic stress, and what systematic and structural pressures are troubling the people teaching them. She told them the story of Professor Stefan Grimm, who committed suicide in December 2014, and left clear advice for his professional colleagues about the particular workplace pressures that took him to that point. Several of us committed to keeping his name in our thoughts and our writing, and we have done so. But surely we shouldn’t talk about these things with students?

And yet, here’s what happened:

I hope I got it right. It felt as if I did. This was not a monologue; students had questions and comments. Most of all they offered support; their responses were simply heartwarming in contrast to the totalising judgement of management by metrics. As I lost my ability to contain my sadness, my voice trembled and I became tearful. A young woman stepped forward and offered a hug. Later more students arrived at my office with coffee and cake, or just concern. Students I barely know out of class offered more humanity and understanding than institutions with a duty of care to prevent workplace stress. I was humbled and grateful.

Two more writers have since responded. The peerless Plashing Vole detailed his 13 hour working day (and playlist, if you need one). And Siobhan O’Dwyer mapped out very carefully why even job security and a genuine appreciation of career privilege doesn’t remove the sense of personal unsafety that so often accompanies academic work.

Both Siobhan and Liz make clear that what prompts them to speak is the worsening health—and mental health—of colleagues. And this is also haunting me at the moment, for a whole range of reasons, not least the story of Fergus McInnes. In September 2014, he disappeared, and has not been found. His family are still waiting for some sense of what happened to him. With care and caution, his story was shared recently on the Matters Mathematical blog, and I found myself reading through his spare and beautifully written website, Fergus’s Brain Online. It’s just a big page of links like it’s 1996, but this is the story of a real human who was a colleague of all of ours, who carefully explained his struggles with depression, and his search for a way to manage it better. He had a stellar academic career.

What is a university’s responsibility if someone takes up an academic position and also has a disability of some kind, especially a mental health condition? Let’s make this simple: surely we should all be standing together for a safe mental health culture for everyone at work, just as there are wheelchair ramps into every building? If the expectations of academic pace and productivity are making work unsafe for some, shouldn’t we look harder at the values of the institution that causes these pressures to seem reasonable to anyone? Anyone?

Or have we really created a culture where, as I learned this week, a research executive who was told the story of Stefan Grimm responded that someone who enters a university career should understand what it takes to succeed. Is this how we persuade academics that it’s normal to push themselves beyond their own limits, without hope of care in return? (And is this relentless commitment to productivity at all costs the reason that academic job applicants who disclose hidden disabilities don’t get jobs?)

These are the values of an aspirational, purposeful economy in which everyone from students to whole institutions is lined up by rank, and the logic of measurement is used to allow the weakest performers simply to fail. It’s a brutal culture in which the competitive lucky ones get careers, and the rest get uberised or not employed at all.

Let’s stop standing for this.

Thanks to many influences here: Liz Morrish, Aidan Byrne, Siobhan O’Dwyer, Will Littlefield, Andy Clarke, Melonie Fullick, Mark Drechsler, Richard Hall, and the students and colleagues I get to sit down with every day.

Top talent

Maybe today a winner may simply be defined as someone who gets to experience authenticity and freedom, not just very profound anxiety, frankly, in the context of essentially extremely tough and extremely precarious labor markets.

Gianpiero Petriglieri, Nomadic Leaders Need Roots, Harvard Business Review

Higher education has a thing for lists around the turn to a new year. It’s as if we can’t stand the rattling disconnect between what we hoped and how things turned out, again. So we try to redirect the conversation towards future consensus with lists. In a world of abundant, discordant opinion, higher education lists are an ordering of priorities and attention: here’s the short version of what’s coming up, what’s hot, what to think about, who to watch.

This week, two lists are bothering me. The first is because I can’t find the answer to a question which I’m sure is straightforward. The Times Higher Ed has released its list of the world’s most international universities, and as one of its performance indicators is the proportion of international staff, I’ve been trying to find out what the criteria are for a university staff member to count as international.

I’m interested because this list comes with assumptions about the contribution of internationalism and workplace diversity to a university’s overall performance. Workplace diversity is about lots of things, but in the THE’s rankings, internationalism is the one. So universities are rewarded for hiring in from other countries, for attracting international students, and for research teams that have international participants. As Phil Baty, THE rankings editor, puts it:

An institution’s global outlook is one of the key markers of a prestigious university. The top institutions hire faculty from all over the world, attract students from a global market of top talent and collaborate with leading departments wherever they happen to be based

If this is the prize, who wouldn’t pay to play?

The problem in this measure is the contradiction between being indifferent to “wherever they happen to be based” for the purposes of collaboration, but being focused entirely on where they happen to come from for the purposes of staffing. The measure defines people who are nationals somewhere else as being more international than people who are nationals-at-home, and assumes that once they land, they bring this charismatic internationalism with them. This is why I’m curious about what defines someone as international. Is there a period after which we’ve stayed long enough to become merely national? For those of us with two passports, which one counts? (Please write in, I really want to know.)

Either way, awarding points for international staff sends a clear message about the kinds of workplace diversity higher education prefers.  It downgrades the diversity among people holding the same passport who come from a wide range of language, religious, racial and cultural backgrounds, especially those with recent migrant or refugee family histories, or those who who bring Indigenous practices of research and ways of knowing to dominant culture organisations. As far as I can tell, citizenship trumps diversity of any other kind. And this hitching of individual citizenship to institutional outlook is a curiously retro way to think about the digitally networked professional world.

But carrying on as though we all still get our news from local radio, this list proposes that a New Yorker moving from Harvard to Oxford transforms institutional outlook more than an Australian raised speaking Arabic in a refugee household in Darwin moving to the University of Tasmania. And because this is about actual plane-travel internationalism, it rewards the institutions with most money, who have the resources to grease the rails of global career mobility. In doing so it shunts along those shiny tracks those individuals who can take advantage of the opportunity to relocate—those with fewest local ties or family responsibilities, or with the earning capacity to move an entire dependent family on one income. It’s an opportunity that is easiest to access in mid to senior career, and as this 2015 report on gender bias in global mobility (from Melbourne University’s Centre for Ethical Leadership) suggests, there are many obstacles to women accessing this particular privilege multiplier.

This kind of “top talent” internationalism comes with important oncosts, both to individuals and to organisational culture. In his work on nomadic corporate leaders, Gianpiero Petriglieri examines the way we’ve elevated people-who-move to elite status without sufficient regard for what happens when they get there. In this thoughtful interview, he maps out how we arrived at a situation that people who don’t stick around came to be regarded as the top talent in a workforce increasingly defined by insecurity and loss:

For millennia, elites have been made of people deeply embedded within a stable social structure. Inbred in-groups, within often fairly homogeneous groups. People who moved around were considered rootless, dangerous to society and possibly morally corrupt. They certainly weren’t the people you would look up to for leadership. These days what we have is a reversal of their status. The status of nomadic professionals has become very high. At the same time, if you look carefully, we have a similar situation unfolding in front of our very eyes in the major crisis of trust in leaders. In the very profound disconnect between the people who occupy leadership positions, and whose reference points are often the global economy and their nomadic peers, and the people who are supposed to be their followers, whose reference points and peers are much more local.

Petriglieri’s work raises important questions about the culture that we’re building when we treat international recruitment, especially to leadership positions, as a prestige marker. The institutional effort directed towards this nomadic elite doesn’t just deplete the budget, but, as he argues, exercises “a profound normative and moral influence on how the larger workforce should evolve”, and reserves the experience of “authenticity and freedom” at work to a very narrow corporate class for whom the “tough and extremely precarious labour market” is an enabler of profit, a social experiment, a disruptive innovation opportunity.

These normative presumptions about the evolution of work in higher education brings me to the second list that’s got under my fingernails this week. The Australian published its “30 most influential” in Australian higher education: “who and what to watch”. There are five women on the list. Five. Julie Hare, who introduced the list, noted that women are in a small minority [see update below], and Professor Marnie Hughes Warrington (one of many female institutional leaders not on the list) suggested on Twitter that a women-only list might rebalance the situation, or it might be worth asking the influential men on the list to nominate the women they think should also be on it.

To me, this is a bit like having a separate ranking list for universities under 50. It doesn’t address the distribution of power in the system as a whole, or the persistence of traditional thinking about who counts and what it takes to win that chokes our capacity to imagine change. It doesn’t protest the problem that the list has called out: that whatever we think influence is, it’s hoarded by a political elite that have more in common than gender. (As one response on Twitter put it, “So many white men.”)

I’m all for raising the profile of Australia’s academic and professional university leaders and lobbyists who are women, and I’m continuously grateful for those in my workplace. But I don’t think we’ll get different lists in the future unless we start with the fact that Australian higher education has a carbuncle of a gender problem, and try to understand why this is. The fact that we’re being trained by global rankings systems to value global career mobility as a virtue, not a privilege, may be one significant part of this problem.

Update 16 Jan

In the print copy of The Australian‘s list, Julie Hare addresses the problem directly, and I want to include this here, as it’s not part of the online article. Thanks to Andrew Norton for pointing this out.

Sadly, there are only a handful of women on the list. While last year saw much rigorous debate over gender equality in the sciences, the sad truth is that women are still missing in action in senior positions. And it’s not their fault.

That said, there are names that come to mind who could be on the list but aren’t. Certainly they would have been in a top 50 if we hadn’t ruthlessly culled it to a 30.

But that still doesn’t change the overall dynamics of a system in which women in positions of power and influence are few and far between. We hope that changes soon.

So say we all.

The heart of it

The heart, in contrast, is a universal symbol that resonates across languages, cultures, and time zones. The heart is more expressive, enabling you to convey a range of emotions and easily connect with people. And in our tests, we found that people loved it.

Akarshan Kumar, on #TwitterHeart

Here’s the thing. There is no single Twitter experience, no coherent “you” that can be better enabled by corporate tinkering within its miniaturist frame, because Twitter is just people. Millions of us use it every day—although apparently not enough to satisfy Twitter itself, or Wall Street, because Facebook. And we each use Twitter for reasons that are peculiar to us, in ways that help us make sense of the world from where we are.

We use it to listen out for things, to propose ideas, to be amongst people, to drop in on conversations, to join a crowd, to run rings around a stupid thing, to pay respects, or just to hear from one person, to mark one single struggle to make it through a sleepless night. We use it at work. We use it with our families. We use it to network. We use it to cross boundaries and make boundaries, both. And among this vast crowd with more or less nothing in common we make the best that we can of the ways in which it doesn’t quite work. We patch and customise and turn a blind eye.

Sure, promoted commercial Tweets are exasperating and often untimely. Spam, bots, fake accounts—they’re all part of what makes Twitter lively to some and trivial to others. And then there’s the ugly side, the vile and stupid things that people feel free to say because distance protects them from rebuke, and because in some mouldy basement of human nature bullying continuously reappears, but as a game.

All of that.

So why the big deal about Twitter changing a star for a heart, turning ‘favourite’ to ‘like’? If we all used the same button before, you’d think that some claim to enhanced iconic universality would go down well with us. Isn’t that what makes us a global community, a worldwide human radio station?

But it turns out this isn’t the case. For me it’s because of the way Twitter explained it. In that moment, in that truly awful blogpost, we all just learned that Twitter comes from a very specific corporate cultural place, that’s both within the US and not. It’s a faith system, a set of beliefs that may well have something in common with other tech corporates, and it enables things to be said without any sense of irony or risk.

Show how you feel without missing a beat.

No, really, Twitter, this isn’t a simple thing. Jamming the whole world of human affect into a slogan doesn’t make it so.

And what the rest of us should hear is this: whenever someone tells you that their way of seeing things is universal, it’s not.

We’ve been down this path many times. Here’s Will Hays, chief strategist and political lobbyist for the American motion picture industry, advancing the case in 1945 that Hollywood should expect to enjoy unrestricted global market share:

for through the universal language of pictures men of every race, creed and nationality everywhere have shared innumerable common, vital experiences, with mutual emotional sympathies, and in a manner to develop mutual understanding

In 1945, this vision of everyone everywhere coming to a common understanding carried weight. But Hays had built his lobbying framework much earlier, and had spoken and written consistently on this question of the universality of Hollywood’s take on things, just as Twitter is doing today. Across all sorts of changing political circumstances, Hays smoothly reminded the industry and its critics that Hollywood was above politics, and above the economy, because of the universal language of pictures in which it spoke to the world—and with which it expanded its market share.

Sometimes you really do have to stand outside of a culture—a company culture, a national culture, a zeitgeist of any kind—to see the limits of its claims.

Is Twitter naive about its claim? Is it cunning? Probably a mix of both. But the upshot is that if you’re a Twitter user who used to click the favourite button to save something to read for later, or to nod sympathetically in the direction of human distress, you’re now reduced to a gesture that comes with much narrower emotional range.

Screenshot 2015-11-06 11.39.38

Looking at this, I’ve been thinking back to the way that Twitter has brought news to me over the past few years, that I’ve marked and kept, and I’ve been wondering which of these possible meanings I could appeal to, without missing a beat.

Twitter showed me, before I could look away, the horrifying death of Muath al-Kasasbeh. Which of these responses could I have given? Twitter brought me right into the last moments, the fierce anger, of Kajieme Powell, and the desperate search for answers in the loss of Sandra Bland. In the middle of the night, with many others in Australia, I lay awake watching Twitter until the final news came from Nusakambangan that the long campaign to try to achieve mercy for Myuran Sukumaran had ended. And as the whispers went around, what could have been said? High five? Adorbs?

The Twitter star icon, and the language of “favouriting” was just as much a simplification. But no one from Twitter had thought to tell me what I meant by using it and so I used it for my own devices.

Now I’m reminded sharply that I had this privilege at all because of a US tech company’s vision of the universal, that turns out to be one I truly don’t share.

More on this

Bonnie Stewart is quoted here at Hopes & Fears and for me nails why Twitter’s gesture is such an epic fail in relation to gendered interactions among strangers in a crowd.

Laura Gogia has a really thoughtful post about how we could come to terms with this.

Maha Bali has pulled together a conversation on different sides to this.

There’s a whole lot of reaction on #TwitterHeart on Twitter.

 

Listening

The home to be lived in generation after generation, the violin passed down … we cultivate the disciplines of care and attention in small, pivotal ways that have large, far-reaching effects on ourselves and others. Out of what is hidden we make the visible and then call it work; work that makes sense of the hours we are privileged to live.

David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity

Storytelling is for an other just as much as it is for oneself.

Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller

I’ve come back from Palo Alto thinking hard about what it means to attempt to make sense of a complex, troubled and large system by listening to the stories of people who thread their lives through it. At the closing #dlrn15 panel on Saturday, George Siemens began a process that has continued in many people’s writing and thinking since: a scrupulous and thoughtful self-critique that I think is quite rare for events like this. So now people who were there or were following along online are debating what could have happened differently, and what needs to happen now. I’m still turning this over in my hands, but it seems to me a really important and hopeful sign that there’s something asking to be taken seriously here, that involves a will to slow down, to stay with an idea until we have settled our score with it, to advocate for our skills and expertise as thinkers, not just as content generators and citation scouts.

For me, some very unexpected conversations about exploring narrative as a way of making sense of higher education were a highlight, so I was interested to hear George say in the closing session that we use narrative as a way of communicating what we researched, rather than as research itself. That’s not exactly where I sit. But I also heard Mike Caulfield say, in the same closing session, that it feels as though we have reached the end of something in higher education, and I’m paying attention to the way that sounds.

Could it be that we have reached the end of our romance with data sufficiency?

Over the last little while, higher education institutions have become the grandest of data cathedrals. Data parses all the mysteries for us, and data directs our thoughts and guides our choices. We turn to data hoping for better news. Data is both moralising and weirdly malleable. We can get different answers with different questions, without ever seeming to compromise data’s impression of hygiene. And so we keep investing in both computing and human resources to expand the cathedral, to make room for more of all of it: business analytics, learning analytics, web analytics, citations, outcomes, grades, performance indicators, rankings, ratings, evaluations, and all the indexes of this and that. Data is our panopticon: we keep an eye on it keeping an eye on us. We adjust ourselves, and calculate, and strategise because we’re always thinking two steps ahead to what the data will show. In fact, some days it seems like all we do is appease the data yet to come.

The stories of higher education experience are more tentative, and their meaning is unfixed. They contradict each other. They contradict themselves. They’re compromised from the moment they’re first handled: our fingerprints are all over them. We retell the same stories and they change. Their priorities rise and then recede. Stories are unreliable, furtive, slippery, unsettling. They seem loose, lazy, undisciplined, as if we’ve all become a bit unbuttoned in public.

And yet when they’re told—as we saw in Marcia Devlin’s beautiful keynote talk about cultural capital in higher education—things become suddenly clear. We have so much in common. And even when we don’t, still we have a capacity to listen to each other, and to honour what is particular in the experience of another person.

Arthur Frank, sociologist of illness, engages with all of this in his advocacy for the stories that emerge from the “narrative wreckage” of illness and other identity shocks. Over several books, Frank develops ideas that he finds in Levinas about the way in which narrative represents our capacity to pay attention, and on this basis to form a relationship of care to the strangers around us. For Levinas, and so for Frank, listening is the moral act at the heart of this relationship, and I was reminded of this today in a post that popped up from health blogger Marie Ennis O’Connor:

When your story is received and witnessed by others, the stories themselves change as they are told and heard, creating a social fabric around which we care for each other. Through sharing stories, we create empathic bonds between ourselves and our listeners. Those who listen to our stories, tell others, and in this way the circle of shared experience widens.

Arthur Frank hooks this up to an idea about the postmodern that makes sense for me, and makes a strong case that without these stories, our understanding is not as sufficient as we thought:

The postmodern experience of illness begins when ill people recognise that more is involved in their experiences than the medical story can tell.

This is where we are now in higher education. The story data can tell about what we have done, and what we should plan for, is revealing itself as incomplete. Data itself is becoming fatigued. Sure, we might go up or down six places in the rankings, but we’re now openly unconvinced that this crude measure tells us something valuable about the complexity of work going on all around us, in the hours we are privileged to live.

This is my first step towards thinking about what I learned at #dLRN15, and the beginning of some thoughts about how exactly we can advance the practice of narrative research. There’s plenty of implicit and explicit narrative work nested inside ethnographies of higher education, and there are many projects that value the ways that students and university workers (not only academics) narrate their experience. But we haven’t yet found the capacity to examine the structures and systems of higher education itself in these terms, and I think Frank’s models will be useful to us, especially his sense that when a narrative is disrupted—as ours certainly is—our sense making is shaped by the search for a new story.

Telling an interrupted life requires a new narrative. … The stories are uncomfortable, and their uncomfortable quality is all the more reason they have to be told. Otherwise, the interrupted voice remains silenced.

Thanks to everyone at #dLRN15 and beyond (and afterwards) for helping shape these beginning thoughts.

In Palo Alto

1.

I’m still in Palo Alto, and I’m none the wiser about the street sign program that asks locals to look up and think about the meaning of their city.*  I’ve now found eight different examples, and they’ve started to take on an anxious tone. The whole place feels like it’s worrying about something.

Would you say that things in your city are better or worse than they used to be? Do you ever find yourself longing for “the good old days”?

What sort of people are needed to make a city?

If you had to decide who could live in your city, what sort of people would you choose? Is there a particular sort of person you feel would be a ‘good fit’ for your city?

What, if anything, do you think living in your city says about the kind of person you are?

Thought experiment: replace city with university. University-as-a-city. What if we had to ask these questions as we move around our workplaces? Would this make us more or less likely to notice the people who find our universities inhospitable, difficult places to be?

2.

Would you recommend your city to others?  Do you think of it as a good place to make a living? What sort of jobs do people in your city have? Are there good options for housing?

From the PPalo Alto Weeklyalo Alto Weekly, some answers to these questions. In 2012 the median household income was 33% higher than the rest of the county of Santa Clara in which it sits–rising from a 22% income gap in 2000. Of the 440 new housing units added since 2014, 78% were developed for those on “above moderate” incomes. The cost of a rental apartment is twice the county average. And this is the kicker: the median home price is $2.67 million.

People write in to the Palo Alto Weekly. They attend community meetings. They aren’t sure whether property owners should be able to subdivide and use “infill development” (granny flats) to solve the housing problem. “Granny units come with real live people living a full life in them, noise, social life, their friends visiting, air conditioning units and all.” But on the other hand, seniors who downsize can’t afford to stay in the area at all; and young workers who are living the employment dream find themselves priced out of their home town housing market, and still living at home with their parents.

3.

People seem unsure about what’s causing the housing problem, especially in relation to the abundance of employment. Even young lawyers are leaving town in search of affordable real estate. How is this happening?

“A lot of us work in tech, and we can’t really leave because this is where the tech is.”

But there’s another view of the growth of tech employment around Palo Alto.

“Tech companies that keep importing people into this area, instead of growing in other areas that could use the jobs, are the ones causing the problems. Stop building, and they will stop coming.”

4.

In her keynote yesterday on California’s history and future of technology imperialism at the #icdeunisa conference in Sun City, South Africa (yes, that Sun City), Audrey Watters maps out very carefully what all of this has to do with those of us who work in education, and she’s right that this brackets education technology with the longer history of Hollywood prospecting in foreign markets for profit.

So far this year, some $3.76 billion of venture capital has been invested in education technology – a record-setting figure. That money will change the landscape – that’s its intention.

She also tells a little known story about a proposal to change the landscape in a more literal way: to subdivide California into six smaller states, that would have created the wealthiest state in the US: Silicon Valley.

We in education would be naive, I think, to think that the designs that venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs have for us would be any less radical than creating a new state.

As I read this powerful piece, I find myself wondering about the other stakeholders in this kind of subdivision, the ones on our side of the fence. In any higher education system that prides itself on competitive advancement, there are also those who profit from the concentration of resources, and excuse themselves from having to look at what happens elsewhere when they do. Venture capitalists and technology entrepreneurs are their natural kin, and we shouldn’t forget this.

5.

Searching for a grocery store, we meet an older Palo Alto resident using a walker to get about. She seems to have groceries, so we ask her where they come from. She tells us that the seniors’ home takes them all to Trader Joe’s on a special bus. What does it mean that there are no corner stores here, nowhere to pop out and buy a loaf of bread?

In a main street store in Palo Alto there’s a cardigan on sale for $850.

And outside the Apple Store, what looks like a Halloween display turns out to be the most muted form of industrial protest I have ever seen. A smartly-dressed representative of the Carpenters 22 hands out a leaflet explaining that Apple are using non-union labour from Canada to get some things built in the valley, despite explicit promises not to do this. Inside the store, the Apple employees look out at us. There is nothing to see here.

6.

Circuits art piece detailIn the middle of Palo Alto’s leafy, strollable downtown, there’s a large sculpture made of the usually hidden parts of all the stuff that makes it possible for us to do what we do. I’ve been looking at it for a couple of days, thinking about the #dlrn15 theme of making sense of higher education in terms of networks, and change practices.

What circuits isolate us from each other, all those of us who work in different ways in higher education? Can we imagine using this circuitry differently? This evening the first #dlrn15 participants showed up for a small pre-conference World Cafe event, to establish some common touchpoints, some problems and some provisional solutions that are worth thinking about and working towards together.

As I’m partly responsible for encouraging the focus on the experience of working in and with higher education, I was really glad to host that part of the discussion. We heard from adjuncts, students, administrators, professional staff and regular faculty, and we came to rest on a smallish, fixable problem: that it’s genuinely hard for institutions to see small innovative gestures and practical triumphs, and as a result strategic planning misses the opportunity to align with what is already valued and demonstrated to work. This is the question we developed as a starting point, and the always impressive David Jones took us a long way towards an elegant technical solution.

How do we notice and learn from small, continuous changes in the way we work, and feed these into institutional decision making?

Tomorrow we’ll think about how to answer it.

*Update: Paul-Olivier deHaye has found the answer. It’s part of Palo Alto’s wide ranging public art program. The artist is Anthony Discenza, and the text of all the questions is here.

The stitches of the day

I sewed once a day, keeping a record of when I worked and marking the breaks between each session. While it is evident where one session ends and another begins, I took care to tie the thread or hair from the stitches of one day to the stitches of the next, so that the line is continuous. The result is an image of my commitment and the time that has passed.

Maria T D Inocencio, ‘In and out of time’

A surprisingly long thread of decisions, time, commitment and work has brought me to a hotel in Palo Alto, California, ahead of this week’s #dLRN conference on making sense of higher education. Among other things, this will mean meeting people who’ve become really significant to my thinking over the last few years, including the first writer who made a space (in the comments to his blog) for me to haggle and worry over the entanglements of innovation and labour in higher education, Jonathan Rees. Proximity to all this is pretty astonishing, to be honest.

I’m also travelling with my daughter. Clem is engaged in her own practical gritted-teeth activism in relation to being a high school student. Every day her struggle gives me a sense of what it feels like to be a naturally self-managed learner who doesn’t fit at all within the structures of the educational practices we promote. She reminds me that there are students at every level of the education system who can come across as obstructive, difficult or impractical in their expectations, when the reality is that we’re too busy to listen to what they have to tell us about how our cherished processes work on the ground for them, how our language and feedback works to implement a sense of failure that over time adds up to a wish to avoid learning altogether. Listening to Clem as we travel around, I’m thinking of many university students I know for whom higher education is also abrasive, demoralising, and marginalising, in ways that don’t trigger any kind of protection or support for them, because what they really need is for us to change the way we do the things we do.

At the same time I’m following the collision of big ideas about how higher education makes sense beyond the usual networks and localities, at the annual world conference of the International Council for Open and Distance Education in South Africa. Across these two conferences, there’s a whispering exchange on Twitter, and as I watch this it feels to me as though there’s a new kind of optimism, “some kind of groundswell“, coming to us. Questions about equity and social justice aren’t just in the backchannels and the corridors, but right there in the keynotes. In her blog ahead of #dLRN15, Catherine Cronin adds a really important question for me: what does it take to see something beautiful in the future of human learning, that makes it still worth working towards that future together?

As the terrain beneath and surrounding higher education shifts, what possible futures do you see? Are any of them beautiful?

This morning walking around Palo Alto in search of groceries, I came across two signs that seem to me to speak to these questions. I’m offering them here with the caveat and apology that I’m a tourist, and to people who live here they may reference local politics in a way that makes everyone roll their eyes. But I stopped to think about them, and to think about what it might mean if either of these were part of the way that we think about working in higher education.

First of all, what if we imagined higher education as a person? Palo Alto road signWould it be someone who shares our views, or someone different? Would we enjoy being around this person? Standing at the foot of this sign I realised that I often find myself thinking of higher education as someone I wouldn’t want to get stuck next to on a plane. This is even though I have inspiring and encouraging professional and academic colleagues, at every level including those who manage my work. But what I find personally painful about interacting with higher-education-as-a-person is the values and beliefs that drive the things that are said and done. It’s like listening to someone talk only about how to profit from real estate. From higher-education-as-a-person I hear a great deal now about the values of competition without a single thought for those who have to come somewhere else in the race, for the race to work at all. To me, this is the opposite of the principles of collaboration, courage or care that make it possible to learn openly, without the driving fear of failure.

So I was really heartened to hear that at #ICDEUNISA, there are speakers with institutional heft calling out this philosophy for what it is: the intellectual rationalisation of social and economic injustice at the highest level of awful. To see this critique gaining traction feels like higher education’s Bernie Sanders moment: if you say it often enough, suddenly it really does become possible to imagine that rankings are neither improving productivity nor sustaining work. So how about we don’t? Really, just don’t.

truckAnd then secondly, this sign on the side of a delivery truck. It’s a marketing message, for sure, but what it suggests is that there is a groundswell in marketing itself about the kinds of values that humans are generating in response to things that make us all feel slightly sick about the world we’ve created—especially in the world of work. So I’m putting off writing about the latest new direction from the post-unionised corporate world about holidays being repurposed as discretionary recreation time, and instead I’m thinking about this sign of something that we want: to appreciate the generosity, warmth and caring that human labour has the capacity to create, and to share.

But this means that the care of labour itself is the critical question. In systems driven by scarcity to focus on survival through competitive growth, how do we nurture hard work that doesn’t immediately become exploitative? How do we make possible the kind of sustainability that enables educators to have homes, families and to contribute where they live, while delivering flexibility so that students aren’t locked into what we hired everyone to do five years ago?

How do we make the world of work itself more generous, more caring, and less corrosive of hope? And not just in higher education, but in all the workplaces where our students will shortly find themselves?

This is going to involve considerable imagination. The starting point is with where we are now, and imagining that higher-education-as-a-person could be someone we’d want to spend more time with.

So I’m really looking forward to #dLRN15 and I’ll tweet as much as I can, because there are so many of us having these thoughts, whether here or somewhere else, and we’ve been making this thread together for some time.

Making change

So why are most universities monolithic, conservative, bureaucratic and resistant to change? F. M. Cornford’s splendid little monograph Microcosmographia Academica (1908) examines the “enemy of inertia” and finds that “there is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing”. While change is theoretically deemed to be a “good thing” by “change managers” – commonly known as vice-chancellors and deputy vice-chancellors – those managers often encounter resistance from ordinary academics.

Steve Olivier, ‘How to manage rapid change

Ordinary academics: resisting the pace of change since 1908.

Colleagues, if you’re writing something in this vein—a strategic planning document, maybe—and academics are your probable readership, please think about what we do for a living. We’re an evidence-based profession, you can throw facts at us. As researchers, we’re continuously called to account on the rigour and robustness of our projects. Our teaching is subordinated to many, many levels of quality assurance to check that we’re not just making stuff up. We’re performance managed, and surveyed, and our grant applications and publications and methods and results and even our grammar are pushed through the mincer of blind, competitive and often pretty harsh peer review.

So if you really want to engage us in changing the way that we work because the bottom line just fell through the floor (and as we pay our bills and manage our savings in the same economy that you do, we do actually know how these things happen) we can help you better if you deal with the following in clear language, with real evidence. We can handle both spreadsheets and dashboards, whatever works best for you.

What specific and demonstrable problem does your change solution solve? What is the scale of the problem, and its likely trend direction—not in generalised terms but in our specific situation? What will have changed about the problem by the time your solution hits the ground?

Will your change solution make things better, or just different?

Does your change solution have potential unintended consequences, and what’s the likelihood that we’ll all be struck by them in about a year’s time? Will we have to do this twice?

Is your change solution one that you previously implemented—with success or not—in a completely different context than this one? What evidence for change comes from the situation that we are all in now? Why does your pre-loved change solution seem suited to the new environment in which you intend to roll it out?

What does your change solution reveal about your own values and goals in business, and about what matters to you as a thinker? Why do you hold these views? How carefully have you been able to evaluate the existing values, goals and practices in the situation that you’re proposing to change?

And when you tell the story of your change solution, and the way your intelligent and experienced colleagues respond to it, what sorts of anecdote do you choose for evidence (which, by the way, is not evidence)? Are you the hero of this narrative? Are you its victim?

I recently saw a lecturer informing students of the introduction of the grade point average system with the words: “Don’t shoot the messenger, blame senior management.”

Well, I recently saw a lecturer helping a student work through the complexity of a puzzling assignment, and I recently saw a lecturer eating at her keyboard, and I recently saw a full professor tweeting her tattoo to students, and I could go on and on, but I wouldn’t use these tiny snippets of everyday lecturer behaviour to prove a case for change. I’d just say that these are people doing what they do in their workplaces, building relationships, making change happen and tending to it afterwards, and as far as possible trying to keep safe all the people in their care—students, colleagues, even you—as we navigate the uncertainty of our market, and of the evidently fluctuating demand for the services we offer.

We use many of the same business tealeaves as you, sometimes at closer range and with more direct experience. We engage daily with the market and we reflect constantly on the feedback it gives us. We’re the frontline staff at the client interface, as you would put it: we’re talking with students, journals, conferences, scholarly networks, publishers, industry research partners and community clients, and this means we are also listening closely to them about what they think is important for us to do. We read budgets, plans, policies and we’re widely networked into global conversations about innovation, markets, economies, employment. We have useful thoughts on all of this.

And sometimes we are your market, as our own teenagers grow up and we wonder how to advise them about options after high school. The problem is that we have seen the often patchy ethics of higher education’s market sensing, sales techniques, and failure of responsible debt counselling from inside the whole recruitment process. We know our children are your sales targets, and there really is no loyalty contest here.

If we seem resistant to your ideas, maybe it’s because we’re thinking carefully about something that drew us here in the first place, a vision that now only persists in your marketing, sort of. We care about people, and we care that they’re not exploited as consumers or as workers. We’re all aware of the new cruelty in human performance management that is the spreading oilslick of your rapid change agenda; we understand that in the race for global prestige, ruthless churn in staffing is a positive for you. In a profession where meaningful job security and manageable working hours are the vanishing privilege of a minority, we’re learning that we need to take care of each other. Because you don’t seem to have a plan beyond the impressively contradictory strategy of mixing competitive reward schemes with mindfulness programs.

But as it happens, this isn’t just another predictable resistant-to-change #headdesk grumble about your lazy stereotyping, and your 1908 evidence base. Because you’re right: all of us who continue to work in higher education need to get stuck in to the question of the near future of our profession, the sustainability of values that we hold, and our obligations to the many who mind what we do, especially those whose taxes pay our bills (that’s also us, by the way). We have the capacity to help, and certainly the incentive.

Next week, I’ll be joining the #dlrn15 conference at Stanford University on Making Sense of Higher Education: Networks and Change. Fellow conference organisers and plenary panel conveners Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier have written some prior thoughts about the immense challenges of imagining, conserving and extending equity in higher education, and the practicalities of using strategic planning to advocate for change at human scale. I’ll be convening the plenary discussion on innovation and work in higher education, with Lee Skallerup Bessette, Petra Dierkes-Thrun and Jeffrey Keefer. Travelling Australians will be there, including keynote Professor Marcia Devlin.

If you’re in the area, there are a few spots left but late registration closes on Monday evening. If you can’t be there, the Virtually Connecting team will be on the ground making it possible for those excluded by conference travel and costs to meet with participants (and each other) and have their voices heard too. You can follow along on Twitter with #dlrn15, and we have a Slack channel.

If you have specific questions or comments about digital networks, innovation and the impact on work in higher education, you can also put them here, and they’ll be heard.

for KA and LM

Update: Anna Notaro was also provoked by the stereotypes in Steve Olivier’s article, and her excellent reply is here. Mike Hamlyn made the very fair point that it’s important to remember that managers in the roles Steve Olivier describes were once academics too. I completely agree with this, and especially that it isn’t helpful to combat stereotypes with stereotypes. The issue isn’t managing, or being managed, but being managed on the basis of bad (or no) evidence, really outdated stereotypes, and a limited focus on the purpose of change, relative to its pace.