Under pressure

It’s week one again, and I’m up late reading students’ introductory posts at the start of a mostly online course.  They don’t know each other, and in sharing photographs and writing publically about why they’re taking the course, they’re showing quite a bit of trust in strangers that they haven’t met in person, including me.

This care that they show each other is really why I still choose to work online, after a year immersed in the blither of techno-futurism, which does make you want stronger internet filtering just so that you don’t have to read any more crazy-making stuff.

Governor Brown of California attracted all sorts of comment last week, for example, for finding online education with the help of Google (“I went to my iPhone and I went to Google and I typed in ‘university education online’ and there’s a lot there”). But wait, there’s more:

We can build the most fabulous buildings, we can have the teachers, professors, all this kind of stuff.  But if other people come along and offer the same, or better, when they want it, you’re going to find there’s pressure out there.

I’m not sure Governor Brown’s talking about the fabulous buildings I work in, but the rest rings true. We’re all playing meeting bingo with these ideas, as we’re stuck in a speculator’s market. We’ve had twelve months of the virtues of student-centredness, epic scalability and reputation gain in massive online experiments of all kinds, and so far a lot less about how complicated it is to keep these things in productive balance.

But what Governor Brown is really making clear is that we’re now expected to adopt without criticism the logic that this speculator’s market, that’s so full of rumour and road map, is a trustworthy instrument to discipline the future of what we do. We’re not given any evidence that markets by themselves will create ethical, inclusive or even particularly interesting educational environments; all we’re told is that more and more competition is inevitable—which is precisely how the freedom of the market gets to govern the agency of its creators.  Neat.

And we don’t notice this as discordant with values we hold as educators, because our own singing along is drowning out the choir. At any university at the moment, you’ll get the strong impression that the market is our chiefest, sole delight; competition is the force that sharpens our pencils. The market enables us to show governments and students (and their parents) that we’re accountable, simply by showing how we’re doing better than the place up the road. It keeps us striving to improve our position; isn’t that the very definition of educational purpose?

Rustichello’s Folly has a terrific post (“the market ate my homework“) about what’s wrong with any situation in which we let the idea of the market become so overwhelming it’s impossible to imagine anything existing before or beyond it. It becomes a kind of superclimate for our thinking, that regulates and enables every action, every decision. We believe we can’t step outside of it, as we can’t step outside of language. Even though every day we act out of courage, curiosity, and kindness, in our market-saturation we don’t know how to count these gestures, let alone convert them to a KPI, so we hardly recall them; they’re nowhere in our end of year reporting. We forget that we know how to act for any reason other than competitive self-interest.

We all enable it. We all go with the market flow, seek employment and remuneration, consumption and disposal, debt and asset. Incoming and outgoing, we all try to catch a market wave that will take us toward some naturalised place of safety and autonomy from which we might be able to thrive and flourish. We don’t though, not enough of us and not in the right ways.

Richard Hall is making the same point when he says that under the spell of a new kind of market for knowledge accreditation, we have finally become bewildered about even the idea of a University. What can it be now, in the mad imperial scramble for rank and reputation? Is it a business that’s really in it for the money, relentlessly banging on about the virtue of brand personality, or is it a public good that’s masquerading in corporate wear simply to network with other similarly sized entities in the local economy? (This week I became momentarily confused in a Twitter conversation about edtech as to whether VC stands for venture capitalist or Vice Chancellor. Awkward, really.)

These two writers together have helped me understand why I’ve been worrying about notices that have popped at work up encouraging our students to “compete, succeed and excel”, by entering a competition. It’s not the activity of the competition itself that I mind, or the existence of the “real world” business-like opportunity that we’re offering students.

Nope, it’s the headache-inducing banality of the idea that competitive behaviour naturally produces excellence, and that so long as excellence is our goal, then we never need to imagine the experience of the losers who have to be in place for the winners to win. Winners in competitive systems don’t learn that they’re accountable to the rest for their place, just as anyone striving to be at the top of a ranking system isn’t expected to feel grateful to those who prop up their legitimacy by coming second.

This is what Richard Hall is on about when he says that the market is producing a failure of care:

We are witnessing a recalibration and enclosure of the idea of the student, not as a co-operative, associational subject, but as a neoliberal agent, whose future has become indentured. This subject is individuated, enclosed and disciplined through her debts and is enmeshed inside a pedagogy of debt, in order that s/he becomes entrepreneurial in her endeavours and outlook.

And we’re not doing a much better job of caring for those who work in universities. When we claim that the quality of our competitive recruitment practices is the reason why some academics get to earn salaries and make future plans, while others do the hourly paid work on which the enterprise depends, we are revealing the real cruelty of the market as a ruse: see, our processes are all open and above reproach, it’s just that you don’t make the grade. Please use the back entrance next time you come.

This all seems so inevitable that our imaginations are caged by it. But what if we pushed ourselves to think beyond the market as our governing authority, to remember what lies outside? What practical gestures of rank-blind respect and care in our university workplaces would we then choose to value, and how would we express our appreciation of those who make them every day—without creating yet another system of competitive reward?

I’m really asking.

7 thoughts on “Under pressure

  1. Blather? You bet. Logging in ate the paragraph I already wrote. I’ve been collecting links and such for several years by now, since before the rise of the xMOOC.

    Not just admin and faculty, tenure and NTT, but now also x’s and c’s need to learn how to talk to one another. Not likely: I remain more hopeful than optimistic. I liked Chris’ description of how the new structures, could be used. There are also the legions of techie, marketing oriented self-declared edu-wonks sans teaching experience tromping in with their really not so invisible hands and big booted feet.

    Your description of getting acquainted with a new online class brought back memories and reminded me of the why. Thank you too for Rustichello’s Folly,

  2. I’m really delighted to introduce you to Rustichello, Vanessa — I think you two will get along. And yes, I think some part of the answer I’m searching for, about how we do this differently, is right under our noses, in the everyday gestures of care that students demonstrate to each other. Somehow working online makes this more visible and more concrete. So I’m starting to see why I still feel more engaged by this, despite the relentless enclosure (such a good reminder from R. Hall about this term) of good online learning communities by badly designed courses offered for bad reasons.

  3. Thanks KB for a terrific post. One hopes that a university that cares, with teachers and researchers who care, would likely be a place with better morale (and better student experiences and ultimately ranking outcomes) than one in which everyone is under the gun to simply be ‘competitive’. Neoliberalism is SO arid, culturally, which surely produces parched universities – bereft of passion or intellectual fertility (precisely some of the qualities universities need to ‘be excellent’). Perhaps we can’t (and shouldn’t?) quantify how we care within our work. But by bringing university managers into our conversations, events and affairs (at morning teas? Book launches? Postgraduate events?) we can immerse them (even if only briefly) in institutional cultures of care and cultivation – they’ll only get a flavour for what really matters by tasting it firsthand.

    1. Welcome to the deckchairs, CG. I think you’re right that when we actively value shared governance and bring people together across the usual divisions to see how to enculturate practices of care, we’ll all have a lot to learn. It’s just not so obvious to me that this educational endeavour is one way. I think that university managers are already thinking about this, as they’re holding together stressed and underfunded teams themselves (often significantly casualised also) with all sorts of gestures of care and appreciation. They often do this better than managers of academic units, I find, so maybe this is something we really need to figure out. And of course, the larger puzzle is: how come competitiveness as an idea takes such a hold, when apparently it has so few genuine admirers?

      Nice to see you out here.

  4. Thanks KB. Have ‘lurked’, but being time poor have had little chance to comment. Perhaps that says something in itself.

    Yes, you’re right about upper level managers vs some academic unit managers. Without guessing names I can imagine where you’re coming from there…

    Where does competitiveness come from? I once wrote – and it still sits in my files unfinished – a parallel sort of paper about where the idea of place competition comes from. It actually has no definitive genesis, but has come into orthodoxy in planning and regional economic development circles through a very slippery ideological route. The idea has no robust scholarly origins at all. I think that frankly it’s pure right-wing ideology – all kernel and no core. Zizek would be all over it!

    Within academia? I guess the Feds have pushed much of this with the ERA; Universities (as we know) buy into the logic (or at least, purport or ‘perform’ the logic) of global ranking indices and the like. And of course the culture of science is itself riddled with competitive individualism (as perhaps too are the humanities, with follies around individual authorship and the cult of the theoretical ‘genius’).

    There’s a couple of threads you might be interested in, on the Antipode critical geographies forum. See: http://antipodefoundation.org/2012/11/08/critical-dialogue-what-can-we-do-the-challenge-of-being-new-academics-in-neoliberal-universities/

    and this one in particular, which features a contribution by our own Natascha Klocker:


    (Nat’s paper, and other invited responses to the above manifesto, can be found through the links from here: http://antipodefoundation.org/2012/11/02/call-for-contributions-forum-on-communifesto-for-fuller-geographies-towards-mutual-security/)

    Thanks for so eloquently reflecting on the problem – and asking the questions!

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