On personality

A reply to Martin Weller

But then along come MOOCs, and they’re all about the personality.

Martin Weller,  ‘The role of personality in education

Martin Weller, Professor of Education Technology at the Open University, is asking important questions about about the pros and cons of stripping authorial personality from higher education course and content design.

In a sector shaped by the persistent anticipation of audit, personality is a bit of a handful. The hallmarks of personable teaching—improvisation, creativity,  anecdote, all the idiosyncratic connections that an individual gets to make between one thing and another—are flatly at odds with the ideals of standardisation and repeatability that assure the student experience. These ideals matter, especially when the same course is franchised to external partners. On the other hand, even connectivist MOOCs lean hard on celebrity as a selling point. But then again, too much creative personality, too much popularity, introduces a kind of cultishness to learning that we really have been trying to move beyond.

MOOCs hothoused this dilemma, but didn’t invent it. We already have celebrity academics with their own TV shows; there’s no end of scholarly charisma being retailed across small islands, archaeological digs, and in TV science labs. And on campus, we struggle with personality across student surveys and intellectual property policies: we haggle over the idea of the individual as creator of educational content whose expertise is the guarantee of student experience, while setting up procedures to assure the depersonalisation of content production so that students are protected from the vagaries of charm.

Personality: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.

As it happens, Martin was himself the personable frontman for one of the many MOOCs I’ve failed to complete. And I’m using the term “frontman” carefully here, because this was the question I asked on his blog: what does gender have to do with personality in MOOCs in particular? (At least one answer, shared by Pat Lockley: “Online Students Give Instructors Higher Marks If They Think Instructors Are Men.”).

In 2013, Carl Straumsheim at Inside Higher Ed totted up the numbers of xMOOCs led by male and female faculty. The difference was exactly as you would expect. When the world’s elite institutions first hustled to get their star talent up on the small screen, just in case there was a rankings bounce to be had, the faces that appeared were male. Women showed up in team-taught MOOCs, but as with television news reading, it took a while for women to be allowed to front the cameras alone.

The article wasn’t immediately popular with IHE readers. Here’s a comment:

As the article notes, there are likely numerous reasons for the gender disparity, none of them pointing to persistent discrimination in the way faculty are selected to teach these courses. That more men than women win Nobel prizes doesn’t mean that the Nobel selection committee practices gender discrimination.

And another:

The first sentence is histrionic, you didn’t even get the headline right (the courses aren’t masculine), and the author has his own gender gap in the ratio of females to males quoted. This is not a very auspicious beginning to today’s edition.

And yet another:

“More female professors are experimenting with MOOCs, but men and STEM classes still dominate course offerings.”

So? And this is a problem why?

Women dominate in the student body, admin, staff, programs like psych, education, nursing, dentistry, english, anthropology, veterinary science, biology, microbiology, theater, music, film, etc. Since women dominate almost all aspects of higher education, doesn’t the principle of “diversity” demand that men dominate at least one, or maybe two, of the hundreds of programs found in higher ed? This may be a naive and is there no room for men in higher ed anymore?…

These comments tell us something about the struggle that higher education still has with gender. We tend to examine this problem through outputs and consequences—how many women make it to senior levels, how many are stuck in long-term casual work, how the historic feminisation of some low paying professions results in the underrepresentation of male academics in those disciplines, and so on.

But the part we find hard to explain is how this persists in such a systematic way–how anyone, let alone a whole marketing team, gets to imagine faculty as typically male, or how we still end up with all male conference panels. It’s much easier to make an example of Tim Hunt or Matt Taylor than it is to recognise the discrimination that’s engrained in the norms we associate with professional success.

There are two parts to this discrimination. The first is that higher education rewards chronic overwork because it makes good business sense to use competitive recruitment and selective promotion to motivate everyone to work longer hours than they’re paid for. This is exactly the message of a ghastly bit of career advice that popped up in Science Magazine this week, that has been deservedly criticised for its valorising of overwork and family neglect as the price that higher education is entitled to demand. Here’s how Eleftherios Diamandis did it:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

My colleagues and I managed to publish numerous papers, and I was invited repeatedly to present at national and international conferences. I was able to demonstrate, in the department’s annual report, scientific productivity comparable in quantity and quality to the full-time academics in the department. I made sure these activities were noticed.

I made myself visible by participating in every research seminar—not easy, considering the hour-long drive and how busy I was at the company. Each time I entered the lecture room, I made a point of passing in front of the department chair before sitting down. At the end of every seminar, I made sure to ask a carefully crafted question or two.

Quite apart from how awful all of this is, the high school maths is that a full-time employee working 16 to 17 hours a day is saving their employer the cost of hiring a second employee, and someone doing this as an extended job audition while hired only as an adjunct really is handing over the candy.

And although both men and women are driven to overwork in higher education, Diamandis’ example slots tidily into 2014 research by Youngjoo Cha and Kim Weedon showing that familial caring responsibilities still make it much harder for women with children or other dependents to exploit overwork culture to further their own careers. As Cha and Weedon map out with great care, this means that the rise of highly compensated corporate overwork (including in academia) therefore contributes directly to the gendering of the pay gap in the labour market as a whole.

Research metrics drive the culture of academic overwork, since research performance is the sweet spot where institutional and individual self-interest converge. But Australia and the UK are now actively developing measurement frameworks to boost the status of university teaching, and this is where we get back to Martin’s problem with personality. If we are going to include peer observation of teaching in an evaluation framework—and as a peer reviewer of teaching, I think we should—we need to be really scrupulous in critiquing the association of charismatic performance and apparent popularity with effective teaching. Otherwise, as Martin suggests, “we risk highlighting the extrovert academic, the jokester, the good looking one.”

As Martin demonstrated, accidentally but usefully, there is every chance in the current situation that the A-list charmer who gets highlighted first will turn out to be male. And further, it turns out that there are things that we say and believe about men who are highly successful leaders of large teaching enterprises like MOOCs, including in the way that we joke about their appeal (“loveable, cuddly“), that we simply don’t say about successful women.

If we’re going to measure the art of teaching with any kind of sophistication, we need to work out urgently why this is still the case.

15 thoughts on “On personality

  1. Thanks Kate for a very thoughtful response. You are quite right to raise gender – that whole ‘rockstar academic” immediately conjurs up images of middle-aged men in leather jackets with inflated opinions of themselves. It’s a very male thing.
    You’re right about the “loveable, cuddly” term – I wouldn’t have used that to a woman. I wouldn’t have used it to someone I didn’t know either. My (admittedly weak) defence in using it was that Dave is a good friend, so it was code for something like “I hope you don’t mind me singling you out here Dave, please don’t take offence”. My apologies if it ended up playing into the gender bias, that’s poor writing (and thinking) on my part.
    Ultimately I think you sum it up nicely with: “Personality: can’t live with it, can’t live without it.” I still don’t know what it means or whether I want more or less of it in education.

    1. Hello! Nice to see you here, hope you’re well. I was thinking about having the same reaction to your blog earlier — this is one of the things that for me blogging is best at, raising questions and noticing new things, or trying to figure things out in new ways. It’s a generous place.

  2. Hi Martin, welcome.

    I’m stuck in the same place as you. I understand why Jonathan Rees sees something like personality, or at least attributable ownership of IP, as a defense of employment. I understand why Mike Caulfield works against the logics of this in federated wiki. I don’t think any of the people you mentioned initially asked for cult leader status — there’s a complex call and response between perceived leaders and their perceived communities. The power/privilege nexus is a mess in all this.

    So for the time being, focusing on the things within our reach, I’m now thinking a bit about the odds of friendship. That is, when friendship itself is a factor in discourse, it becomes a multiplier of assumptions and an author of small consequences in all sorts of ways.

    But I can’t begin to imagine a world where this is filtered out without huge cost.

    Higher education institutions are thickly hedged with policies that try to remove this kind of instinctual bias from decision making. But from conversation itself? I don’t know.

    I have really been drawn to the question you asked this week, because it is hard to answer, but it’s at the heart of so many things we are dealing with in higher education in Australia and the UK.

    I’m truly not sure how all of this plays out in other places; the personality question really is the hinge between distinctiveness and standardisation in systems that place a premium on QA, as we do.

    1. I’ve been looking as Joshua Greene’s work and Dan Sperber’s recent work and there’s something there I think very profound, that feels to me to be related.

      Greene says morality is mapped onto a set of cognitive functions meant for getting a small group of people you’ve known forever to cooperate with you.

      Sperber says that rationality was largely a retrofit designed to persuade people to — you guessed it — cooperate in small groups of known individuals.

      And in both cases what we see is that the intuitions and preferences that work in those cases don’t work in a diverse world of distant acquaintances and strangers (Greene) or where we’re using rationality to do things like engineer rockets (Sperber).

      They end up at two different answers for the different problems. For Sperber, we find that we can become more logical if we engineer rhetorical contexts where we have have to explain in order to persuade.

      For Greene, the answer is to use non-deontological systems — to get away from talk of rights, which always conflict and move to a process-oriented approach, like utilitarianism. (Greene makes the provocative point that the heartless and hedonic utilitarians were a century or more ahead of “rights-focused” philosophers like Locke and Kant when it came to gay rights, slavery, women’s suffrage and education).

      I probably am not going to get where I want to get with this comment, but I think personality is maybe another one of these things. Our intuitive morality works great in our tribe, but try to apply it to large scale problems and it’s bigotry, jingoism, and the like.

      Likewise we long for things with personality, but personality at scale is a different animal, and maybe as toxic as group connection at scale.

      Ugh, I should workshop this more. TL;DR — both intuitive morality and connection with personality may be small scale traits that can be quite destructive at larger, inter-group scales.

      1. I hope you develop those ideas further and blog them, Mike (I don’t presume to understand exactly what you’re talking about). I am almost afraid to discuss the political implications, though I suspect the risks there are obvious. I mean, the danger of personality is political leaders who are followed for their charisma and ppl are blinded to whatever “wrongs” they do. What’s the biggest danger in academia? A charming prof can brainwash students?

        But why again is personality dangerous en masse, and ummm what can a human being DO but have their personality? Like, why should a charming teacher or MOOC facilitator feel they need to downplay that? Or is that not what we’re saying? I get the danger of branding, though, and don’t know if we are there already or neaing it (And I say all this recognizing the gender implications still…with no answers).
        The whole extrovert/introvert question is interesting…remember that twitter convo where so many ppl outed themselves as introverts? I am pretty sure all of those ppl are popular in their f2f contexts, so i am wondering about that…

        Sorry, totally off track from your points about utilitarianism vs rights-based ethical decision-making.

        1. Kate gets at it below. Personality in small groups of known people functions differently than personality at scale. And it may be that just as our approach to ethics (reasoning from what “we” know is right) and our approach to rationality (argue your point, blind to your contradictions) work OK in small groups but fail at scale, personality may be similar.

          As just an example, in a small homogenous tribe I’d want to pick someone to work with I like, and that promotes all sorts of beneficial sorts of facilitation based on personality.

          Now look at an inter-group scenario where I want to pick someone I like to work with. Suddenly personality is bigotry, because at the intragroup level liking someone — even if it is in your gut — is really looking for someone sort of like yourself.

          Politics is similar where issues voting gets replaced by Affinity Voting – “Does this person drink the sort of beer I do? Can we really have someone as president who diesn’t drink the sort of beer I do?”

          Reactions to personality and notions of group identity are so intertwined…

          What’s the harm? I think we see it everyday where students look at their professor and think well, he or she doesn’t act like me or look like me which means I don’t fit in. And as Kate says below we see it also in the way “personality” at scale becomes a rankable phenomenon in a way it is not in the small groups we used to inhabit.

          Again, TL;DR I guess, but there’s often cases where things at scale or things that are institutionalized are not really the same things anymore.And I think personality may be one of those.

      2. Mike, this really gets at something important for me — how personality shapeshifts into celebrity, and why this has become so specifically troubling in higher ed. The issue/problem is scale itself, because scale introduces ranking practices to diversity. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for this, Kate. No easy answers.
    The gender issue seems huge for me, not only because of the culture of overwork and what you neatly expressed as like being constantly in an extended job audition. But of course the issues with how ambitious behavior by women can get seen as aggressive, and playful/emotional behavior is seen as positive in men but not good for women. I was wondering also about how academia requires an amount of self-promotion, which again women are (am I wrong?) socially discouraged from doing (thinking of an old blogpost of Lee Skallerup Bessette’s). Academia is also full of ego. It’s difficult to avoid it. Do academics overwork themselves just for the extrinsic rewards of our institutions, or so we get enculturated into believing our own self-worth is connected to our academic output and reputation…so much that our ego becomes central?
    On another note, I think student evaluations are affected by much more dangerous things than personality (i don’t mean to say you were reducing it to personality; just adding this in). So for example, teachers who are less popular sometimes make consessions and e.g. Give easier grades to get better evaluations. This isn’t just for academics. I read somewhere that doctors who are less “liked” are more likely to get sued. On a positive note, I know jokester/charming professors but students who recognize them as “empty” in terms of content/teaching they deliver. Not sure what they write in the evaluations.
    So how do we talk about good teaching in ways that don’t “penalize” the less charming/popular? Looking at student output alone often hides what matters in the process of learning. (I keep getting interrupted so will post this comment now and come back later).
    But equally: how much of personality is something we “work” on? That deserves its natural rewards? E.g. People who “care” and are “kind” to students, taking the time to know them personally and help them out? Who take the time to make their classes entertaining? These things matter. I wouldn’t want to say that people who do not so these things are doing “enough” and should not have to try… Or, at least, i wouldn’t want to attribute the success of someone who teaches in this way… I don’t want to attribute it to personality as if it’s a fluke, when it’s an intentional effort related to their teaching philosophy…again, just thinking aloud
    Gotta go

  4. Maha, these questions about intentional practice in good teaching really strike me as important, especially in relation to attentiveness and care.

    On the other hand, I’ve always been wary of the way we value “entertainingness” in teaching, because this has tended to come at me in contexts where both teaching and learning are being diminished.

    On surveys, I once spent hours of my life I’ll never get back on a committee formed to change our institutional student survey questions. We spent a very long time debating the value of the statement “Because of this teacher I have felt enthusiastic about this subject.” People were really passionate about keeping a question that spoke to the cultivation of enthusiasm even though they couldn’t say clearly what they meant by it. There’s something about teaching that gets us reaching for the intangibles. And in practice, this question consistently advantaged the jokester extroverts.

    So this is where the vital question you ask about whether we have different tolerance for extroversion in men and women comes up (and I think there are huge cultural questions here too). Like you, I suspect that discrimination in this area is quite common.

  5. It seems to me that different students ‘like’ different academics. There is room for many personalities, though as writers unnumbered have pointed out, the culture itself seems to push everyone in certain directions. As long as those question writing committees accept that there should be different weight on the answers for diverse purposes (e.g. making students enthusiastic may be a strong positive for teaching material that is necessary but not immediately interesting, while the person who challenges ideas, values and academic skills may be just right for upper level projects or essays). Promotion should not be linked to popularity, but to performance. Alas, if the metrics are wrong we get performativity and gaming of the standards. I’ve know a few who got fairly high up the greasy pole that way, much to colleagues distress when s/he was in charge.

    As to angst about whether gender matters in all this – of course it does, but we need to work out how it does rather than rush to call out discrimination. The How is very complex, but one way became clear to me in a long career – good enough women picked up the slack for the show pony men and the men were rewarded. Students remember the one who inspired, not the one who answered the hard question the day before the assignment was due and Mr Inspiration was at coffee. When all jobs are full time and tenure is likely, this is less of a problem because the helpful answerer has the time, but if she is casual, she is a volunteer. Not great. (Yes, I know that race and ethnicity and even class is part of this tangled web of work relations in HE.)

    1. I wonder if any institutions allow teachers to negotiate the criteria by which their teaching is assessed so it aligns with their teaching philosophy and what their intentions are. So not only different weights for different courses but even some different criteria for different teaching styles or something…

Conversation welcome here