Shared values

It happened because our corporate policies were put ahead of our shared values.

Oscar Munoz, United Airlines CEO

It happened: a passenger hauled by his arms from a plane to enable airline staff to get from airport to airport. His reaction to being grabbed out of his seat seemed to take everyone by surprise, and from the moment he refused to go along with things, every mistake was made. He was physically harmed, mentally harmed, and then further abused by media and social media investigations of his personal and professional life. His identity was publicly debated and he was shamed, in crude and judgmental ways.

Speaking to the media, his lawyer proposed that this is not just about the harm from an isolated incident. It’s that corporate culture as a whole has shifted decisively in favour of profit, efficiency and compliance, and away from dignity, care and respect. Far from producing better outcomes, competition has introduced unsustainable levels of aggression towards consumers, backed up by corporate policies driven to protect profit, and soothed by corporate euphemism.

Mostly this aggression is contained in backstage planning; occasionally, we catch sight of it in unintended ways. We learn that planning focused on the capture of market share, the reduction of labour costs, and the shaving of resources to the bone is covered for by marketing that focuses on superior customer experience, softer blankets, fresher food in supermarkets. What’s really at stake for businesses feeding their shareholders:  how can we win, and how can we win cheaply? And above all, how can we manage the obstructions and interruptions to our winning strategy introduced by the very people that we’re here to serve?

Universities see themselves in this greasy mirror. Under increasing budgetary pressure, we’re actively investing in policy and technology that will let us serve more passengers with less. We’re thinking like airlines: shrinking seat pitch, charging a premium for the extra inch that enables passengers to sit comfortably, and then finally adding seat overbooking as a further layer of profit-protection. Specifically, we’re increasing class sizes, casualising labour, cutting contact hours, and burbling about “blended learning”. And behind it all we’re building big data telescopes through which individual students are glimpsed only as tiny, tiny dots on the landscape of market, demographic and behavioural analysis. Analytics in higher education are instrumentalising the way we develop the environment in which individuals come to learn. Through this lens actual learning is the pea that disappears under the cup of measurement: it’s the diversion, the misdirection that makes the whole trick possible.

What can we do? It’s easy to complain and feel defeated, but here’s the plan. We can tell each other stories, and listen well.

I’ve had the opportunity to deliver professional development training recently, on narrative practices that help leaders identify and defend their own values rather than simply promoting the institutional vision hammered out in brand, policy and threat. Narrative practice has the potential to reframe academic professionalism as an expression of what we care about, what we choose to stand for. It lets us bring a fuller sense of self to decision making, and challenges the “shared values” of reputational vanity, market capture, or whatever we’re currently chasing.

Development, future, strengths: a note from a workshop, image: Kate Bowles

I developed this training with students (in a class which I’ve written about before here). We learn from stories of professional experience that work is a continuous practice of relational ethics, demanding skilful and intentional ways of navigating challenges. We learn that to work well and sustainably is to be protective of good climate: to moderate the impact we are prepared to have on the lives of others, and to contribute in mostly quite modest ways to the creation of workplaces worth working in.

The best thing that’s come from this was to hear from a student that she had been successful in her first graduate interview because she was able to take her insights from this narrative class and talk about herself in ways that felt authentic to her. They chose her—but that wasn’t the best thing. A bit later, she wrote and told me that narrative insights also helped her to react quickly and confidently when it became clear that the job was a gift she needed to return. After observing how often the things she was asked to do made her feel uncomfortable at a deep level, her confidence in her own values helped her to work constructively with this discomfort, and separate from the job calmly and professionally.

Fun fact, as my daughters like to say: it’s easier to work in this narrative frame with students than with staff. The students who come to this class are open-minded and curious about their futures. They are interested in being heard, and in listening to each other. They are open to uncertainty and risk. Workplace leaders, on the other hand, have more on the line; they’re watching the rising tides of redundancy and job casualisation around them, and hoping that by clambering to higher ground they can stay one step ahead of what’s coming. On top of this, they’re increasingly seeing colleagues being dragged from the plane, and responding with helplessness and loss.

And this is the climate in which they have to lead.

In The Renewal of Generosity, which I’m currently mentioning in everything I write, Arthur Frank identifies the presence of menacing possibility in our workplaces as one that leads to demoralisation. By this he literally means the sapping of moral capability, the ability to stand for our own values, rather than the supposedly shared values of the strategic plan or the corporate vision. I agree: to restore the climate of our workplaces through practices of hospitality, generosity and consolation, we need to create space and support for leaders to listen to the stories that they’re hearing every day. The consolation of small stories, these ways in we keep in touch with each other as humans through the day (“How was your weekend?” “How’s your mum doing?” “Have you got plans for the holidays?”) aren’t trivial, or unproductive. They’re the ways in which we offer each other the gift of appreciative listening, and learn what matters to us.

And as it happens, they’re a win for organisations too: leaders who make space for storytelling in teams are building capacity to last over time, to work cooperatively through the most adverse circumstances, to be able to articulate and argue for their values, and to maintain their ethical focus. This is at least as useful as the current corporate fad for paintball-style team building, or team-based wellness challenges, all based on the myth that competition is healthy, fun and a win for all. (Which can’t possibly be true, when you think about it.)

Values-centred narrative practice on the other hand actually strengthens the “shared values” claim in corporate culture. But it does this by challenging the logic of chasing profit (or survival) through aggression towards consumers, service users, clients, students and staff. Having recently learned how empathy developed through touch and eye contact expands our neural capacity, I’m proposing that we also need to look more closely at story work in teams, and treat this as real, productive work. Narrative practice has taught me that small stories shared in a climate of trust create the conditions for innovation. Storied values expand our imagination of how others see the world; and they develop the generous, hospitable and empathic culture we need if we are going to learn from failure, risk, slow progress and small gains.

In other words, this is exactly how universities should be working. We’re not low-cost airlines, and even low-cost airlines don’t seem to like the way things are going.

Making kin

A purpose built hospital can be an act of kindness. The politician spoke about a hospital she visited in Oslo that was built with the intention of making everyone there feel good to be a part of it.

Lea McInerney, Join the Gathering of Kindness in Creating a Better Healthcare System

A couple of months ago I was included in a two day event designed to create a better vision for Australian healthcare, that is safer for patients and offers a more sustaining working environment for staff. I sat in a big tent with healthcare planners, policy makers, artists, musicians, politicians, medical students, playwrights, frontline healthcare staff and a handful of patient advocates, and together we went over what it means to try to make public health happen—in our hospitals, in our communities, in our selves.

It was a courageous, generous company of strangers encouraged to try new ideas and to listen well. The organisers brought in all the big contingencies for consideration: constraints, traditions, professional habits, new and emerging risks. I could see that the freewheeling schedule was occasionally stressful for outcome-oriented executives using departmental budget and time to be there. But when things are difficult, when the concrete is really set, new ideas have to be allowed to emerge without an agenda, and without immediate prospect of a fix.

Initially I wasn’t sure where the emphasis on kindness had come from, especially as we didn’t spend much time on what kindness might mean. This is important as there are specific interpretations of kindness that are built into different faiths and ethical systems, and there are other assumptions among those of us without faith. One interpretation that makes sense to me is etymological: in practising kindness, we are seeking to widen the circle of those whom we think of as kin. So while there’s a separate etymological case for connecting kindness to nature, the association with kin speaks of our capacity to overcome instinct, and to extend ourselves to the care of strangers as though they were among our own family and loved ones.

This means that kindness has something to do with both generosity and hospitality, two ideas I’ve been sitting with for a while. I suspect kindness practices may also be at the heart of ideas that Dave Cormier is discussing in relation to resilience, what Liz Morrish is writing about in relation to care, and the questions Viv Rolfe is asking in relation to corporate wellness programs that are emerging in universities as a response to academic stress. We’re seeing care for strangers all over the place: in political protest, in crowdfunding, and in the network itself.

Lea McInerney went to the Gathering of Kindness event on behalf of Australia’s health-focused Croakey website; she has just written a meticulous narrative of what we did over the two days. And here’s the thing: the event wasn’t originally intended to be about kindness at all, but was commissioned to attend to problems caused by bullying:

Around the same time, the Victorian Attorney-General’s Office had been conducting an audit of data from three reviews of bullying in healthcare settings. The findings were alarming – the incidence of bullying was high, it was poorly dealt with, many workers were caught up in an escalating cycle of poor behaviour, and they had little confidence that anything could be done about it.

This is why the event launched with a compelling piece of verbatim theatre, drawn from real critical incidents. Alan Hopgood’s play ‘Hear Me’ shows how staff in steeply hierarchical organisations create situations of escalating risk when they feel unsafe to speak out about what they see. When kindness in healthcare fails, it really fails.

At some level, this story should have been more unfamiliar to someone who works in a university. Critical incidents for us, even those that lead to protracted cases of grievance, rarely place lives at risk. I can enter the wrong grade in a spreadsheet, and no one dies. With our much lower stakes, surely we shouldn’t also see capable, productive professionals come to feel that they can’t continue to work?

And yet even though we aren’t mishandling medication or missing a diagnosis of disease, we are elevating the stresses involved in just doing our jobs by continually having to prove that we deserve these jobs at all. Far more than public health, public universities are tested by the entirely made-up demands of inter-institutional competition, to which our actual jobs are subordinated. Crucial to this is the ramping up of precarity, that pits us all as each other’s primary competitors for scarce resources and career survival. Liz Morrish says this:

In what seems like a perverse project designed to deprofessionalize, casualize and atomize the academy, community has been hard to maintain. Universities keep us marching along, forming and reforming in response to multiple restructurings, reviews and revalidations. There is a reason the word ‘tradition’ is rarely uttered in UK universities, except in the most elite. We are all newly precarious and we are not supposed to look for permanence.

The anxieties of precarity are intensified by conditions of continuous institutional self-review demanded by external accreditation cycles. So while being urged to focus only on productive work, we are also compelled into complex routines that we are know are only marginally productive. We jump through hoops and then design new hoops to jump through. Everything is urgent, and nothing can happen without three levels of committee review, and so this week’s emergency decision-making still won’t be implemented for two years, if at all. Meanwhile we go on chasing the relevance puppy all over the park.

But it’s OK because there’s a new building, a new brochure, a digital campaign that cost hundreds of thousands, and another consultant bustling out of the executive suite on the way to the bank. The hustle is on, a protracted and unreflexive confidence trick designed to persuade the market that we’re on the up. But inside, in confidence,  we’re driven by the spectre of always-imminent downturns towards a weird brew of opportunism and thrift, that seems the only remedy for a kind of pervasive scarcity that no one can really account for. The contradictions between the brand and the budget seem significant. How did we end up committed to so much without resources in place? Why did we set things up to sustain only a few careers at the expense of so many others? Who is served by this?

And in these situations, small and harming critical encounters do happen, and cascade, and get escalated. Exhausted people entangled in the weeds of precarity fail to meet each other’s needs — not by much, not with much at stake, but enough to fire off an email that takes a tone, or to threaten some kind of something, if things aren’t fixed, things aren’t done properly, or as promised. Grievances rise up and are cajoled back into a kind of accommodation, for now. People don’t seem able to hear one another properly, to notice that the other humans around them are doing their best, that no one has enough of anything to do well what they came here to do.

This is really why I loved the Gathering of Kindness, because it was a sign that even entrenched and budget-driven problems can be thought about as capable of being changed. I loved seeing what our nearest kin in organisational terms—public health to our public education, two big engines of employment and hope in our local communities—are trying to transform about their culture. The event’s extraordinary organisers, entrepreneur Mary Freer and surgeon Catherine Crock, have a vision for change that is specific and achievable, and the commitment to make it work.

And so I really want to ask: if we could hope for an institutional vision of kindness as an essential component of higher education, what would that look like? How would students experience it? What would industry partners or government stakeholders notice us doing and saying if we had it? What would we be able to achieve with it, that we’re prevented from doing now by the conditions we’ve set for ourselves? What new opportunities in research or teaching would kindness itself generate?

What would we build, like that Oslo hospital, with the intention of making everyone feel good about being part of it?

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. 


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.

In Palo Alto


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?


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.

Stones only

The purpose of Stonehenge is lost to us. There will always be debate about its meaning.

Stonehenge Visitor Centre, Wiltshire

I grew up in England, although I wasn’t born here.


I’m not in Australia, I’m visiting the country that isn’t quite home, with my Australian teenage daughter who isn’t quite at home here either, while we both try to make sense of the weave of family (her) and familiar landscapes (me) that make England part of who we are. Or not.

"Seventeenth century depiction of Stonehenge", at
“Seventeenth century depiction of Stonehenge”, at

So it made sense to us to go to Stonehenge, because that was my landscape at her age. We battled the wind and the tour buses and the queues, and then sheltered from the weather with a turn around a small educational display of immersive diorama and interpretive panels: educators’ best guesses at everything Stonehenge might represent, pitched for tourists and school parties on their way to the gift shop.

Historians of Stonehenge—and the larger network of burial mounds and earthworks in the surrounding fields—are stuck with the fact that no one knows for sure why it’s all there. The explanatory panels have a provisional feel. What sense did these stones make to the humans who hauled them there and set them up with such precision? We don’t know. What we have instead is a history of conjecture: paintings and maps and interpretation and use. And now we also have ticket pricing, and audio tours, and the opportunity to bundle Stonehenge in with other sites managed by English Heritage at a discount.

This puzzle of a monolithic presence that’s so familiar you can hardly see it as strange has been in the back of my mind as I’ve been working with a lovely group of people on a conference whose topic is higher education. We were originally invited to create a conversation between scholars and practitioners with differing views on digital learning, but to me this is an opportunity to ask the bigger questions of the higher education systems we have all inherited: just what are these stones doing here?

Here’s how the call for proposals puts the questions:

What are the most pressing uncertainties, and the most promising applications of digital networks for learning and the academy? What agenda should be set for research in the near term? How best can researchers develop and share insights that will achieve practical outcomes and address systems-level challenges facing higher education, while establishing and applying robust standards of ethical practice?

Because this is a big set of questions, we’ve broken it up a bit with themes: ethics of collaboration; individualised learning; system impacts; innovation and work; sociocultural implications. I’m not sure these are entirely clear, but I hope that the ambiguity is productive. It’s certainly sincere: higher education should be difficult to reduce to simplistic abstractions, although the edtech stakeholders currently explaining education to everyone seem to have missed this memo.

So we’re approaching this as researchers and educators, and hazarding some questions about how higher education might make senseScreen Shot 2015-05-17 at 12.00.09 am in specific places. Some of these respond to the provocations that higher education has faced in the last few years. All of them emerge from a conviction that we can no longer sensibly debate the meaning of digital learning in the abstract, as though the institutional and social context where it’s in use won’t fundamentally reshape what it is being used to do. It really does make a difference if the target is international market penetration as opposed to reduction in domestic cost overheads as opposed to regional equity.

So let’s stop generalising about students, teaching, learning, technology, faculty and administration. Reforms that spring up in one place won’t be helpful in another; technologies that transform learning for some students won’t necessarily have the same effect for others. What we are most likely to be able to share around networks of research collaboration are useful questions, and practicable ways of asking them.

At the same time, we need to understand that power is distributed very unevenly throughout the global network of higher education institutions. If digital innovation is left to the market, we will continue to see scale and standardisation dressed up as personalisation and differentiation. So it seems timely to have a productive conversation about educational diversity, and to ask how we can expand access to learning in a way that sustains it.

Here’s a start: John Elder, a faculty member at Middlebury College interviewed recently by Michael Feldstein for eliterate TV, on the limitations of MOOC evangelism:

What does not appeal to me is when people talk about the MOOC model, where they say, “At our megaversity, we have a professor who can give you an absolutely authoritative set of lectures on the following technical subject. And then, in your colleges, your professors can lead the discussions on them.” I kind of want to say, “You haven’t seen our lectures.” That’s one thing I want to say as a devotee of small colleges. But also, it’s sort of like, here’s a piece. That lecture becomes like a textbook, purely a textbook. There’s no reciprocity in it. It’s all worked up.

To recognise digital learning as the practice that networks small higher education institutions to global circuits of influence and profit, we need to think about this working up—this strategic withholding of reciprocity that has made MOOCs such Trojan horses for reform. What are the obligations for care that should accompany the power to impose curriculum from one place on learners at another? What are the implications for longer term sustainability of research-led teaching in smaller institutions around the world? How does withheld reciprocity connect to the state of the academic labour market and the everyday working conditions of the academic precariat?

These are difficult conversations, and it feels like the right time to be having them.


dLRN15 will happen at Stanford University, October 16th-17th, and this is an invitation: please come and join us. We’re delighted that Mike Caulfield, Marcia Devlin and Adeline Koh have accepted our invitation to set the tone as our keynote speakers. We really want to welcome scholars, researchers and practitioners who, like us, have more questions than answers, and are ready to look at higher education with a stranger’s eye.

For more on the conference, here’s the website. The call for proposals only requires a brief abstract, so just make a cup of tea and you’ll be done in a flash. To inspire you, here are some thoughts from two of the other organisers, Bonnie Stewart and Dave Cormier. The whole thing is under the shingle of the Digital Learning Research Network at the University of Texas at Arlington, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and George Siemens has rounded us all up.

We’re also supporting the Inclusive Fees campaign with lower rates for adjuncts, the underemployed and freelance/independent scholars or practitioners.

Seriously, Mister Jones

The good or bad faith with which power is exercised is irrelevant; raising the question on these terms will not be effective. Power cannot be shamed into limiting itself in this way. It seeks to limit us.

Jason Wilson,  “Moderation, speech and the strategy of silence”, Detritus

You know something’s happening/and it’s happening without you/yes it is/Mister Jones

Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man”, this beautiful live version

I’ve been thinking a bit more about Steve Wheeler’s invitation to discuss whether jokes are a good way to promote discussion of serious topics, and I’m going to take him seriously for precisely one minute and add something to what I wrote yesterday.

Three reasons, all personal, why I wouldn’t make those jokes myself. First, since I’ve been writing about the relationship between illness and overwork, I’ve been contacted by people working in education from all over the map, all saying that they recognise in themselves or their colleagues some aspect of the neglect of self that this involves: the sense of panic, despair and exhaustion; the relationships stretched to snapping point; and sometimes full blown illness. They really do have their heads in their hands, like the photo Steve used of himself in his prank. And I have to say that those of us whose illness is physical, especially of the kind that scares the underpants off everyone around us, fare much better in terms of other people’s cheap jokes than those who are wrestling (often in secret) with mental health. Because mental health still fuels the metaphors of everyday life. It’s ground right into the language of joking around, and I really can’t imagine how it feels to have to navigate this.

Secondly, at the end of last year, when I was still flapping about like a bird that has flown into a plate glass window with “cancer” etched on it, I came across Francesca Milliken, who was just at that moment starting her own blog about her daily experience of living with clinical depression in its most depleting extreme.  I’ve followed her writing ever since, and I’m really a huge fan, because of the clarity and courage with which she lays out what she’s here to say. And that’s why jokes about clinical depression can’t sit well with me, because when you say it, I see this person. And this one. And this one.  And this one.

Thirdly, I’ve followed Audrey Watters since I first started writing online, for her frankly indispensable service to education blogging. Through her and many other women tech writers or activists, I’ve learned that joking about online threats to bloggers truly doesn’t work for me either. Because:

So for these three reasons, it just doesn’t seem to me that there’s a serious issue on the planet that’s worth trivialising what other people have to live with, when we have instead an opportunity to care for each other, and to speak without clutter about the fact that the things in Steve Wheeler’s post are serious.

Should this cramp Steve Wheeler’s style?  No, of course not. I’m not his mother.

But I now realise that what troubled me about his prank goes a bit deeper; it connects to the very odd political culture in Australia at the moment. So I’ve been thinking back to Jason Wilson’s beautiful essay on the proposed repeal of the 18C provisions in Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. These provisions set out that we have a high standard in Australia that makes it an offence to offend, insult or humiliate others on the basis of race. And now, with the considerable hubris of its thumping political majority, our new conservative Government is proposing that these amount to a sanction against “hurt feelings”—even though this suggestion has been robustly tested in law and found to be as daft as it sounds.

When I first read Jason’s essay last year, the bit that really stayed with me was this simple advice: power cannot be shamed into limiting itself.

It came back to me yesterday because it’s such a solid and intelligent caution against letting frustration be the compass to your reactions when dealing with conservative thought.  That’s one compass that will always be spinning, because it is in the very nature of privilege to be able to maintain a dizzying range of positions all at once.

And that’s exactly why privilege also cannot be shamed into recognising itself.

This is the painful lesson played out again and again in coordinated Twitter activism, for example. #notyourAsiansidekick, #CancelColbert, #destroythejoint: these campaigns build solidarity among the exhausted and frustrated, but rarely achieve reflection or change in the expression of privilege itself. In fact, mostly the opposite: they trigger a doubling down on the original whatever, often in the form of a patronising explanation of what was intended and how life woks, in case the sophisticated nature of privilege has somehow slipped by those who criticise its operation.

None of this is new, or personal. It’s the well established set of routines that continuously polish the dance floors on which privilege performs. When I read yesterday that Steve Wheeler, oddly enough choosing Bon Stewart’s own words from her comment on this blog, is prepared to “own the post and be accountable for it”, I found myself humming Bob Dylan.  And then suddenly I remembered a very old article by film theorist Laura Mulvey. In “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing, Do You, Mr Jones?” (1973), Mulvey riffed on the lyrics of “Ballad of a Thin Man” to rebuke a complicated pop art joke based on making the bodies of women into furniture — a joke that as it happens was recently reprised as some kind of racial satire, and then defended all over again. Because, you know, joke.

So none of this is new. It’s the platform from which conservative thought launches its banal, recurrent manifesto: the double-back-flip vision of privilege as victim. It’s how people for whom the dice of privilege have been loaded to win every game get to advise others to stay hopeful that this is not actually how things are. And this is how privilege continually serves up to others, as Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it in her outstanding essay on hope as the ruse of progressive thought, “the cornbread that turns to shit in your mouth.”

So this is how privilege gets to feel responsible, heroic, misunderstood, and sorry for itself, all at once.

And at the moment, for some quite weird reasons, we’re seeing this dredged up conservative woundedness all over the place—in politics, in corporate leadership, in entertainment, and online.

To me, both Jason Wilson and Tressie McMillan Cottom are right about the practical mechanics of it. Jason Wilson talks about the strengthening of power through “pantomimes of accountability”, in a way that matches up to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s description of the “solicitors of hopefulness” policing the same agenda. Never having to say you’re sorry means that the privileged continually get to define just how much they’re willing to share, how much accountability is just enough, how much hope will do.

But even though Mister Jones is all around us, in recurring multiples like Agent Smith, there are signs of change happening without him. There are people everywhere writing back, stepping up, and giving their own human time to indicate that they care for each other, and will risk their own convenience to make a stand. (Looking at you, Bill Ryan.) And of course, these include all the people who wrote in good faith to express concern about Steve Wheeler’s apparent disclosures of trouble, those who missed his joke, to whom I just want to say: don’t change a thing because you really are part of something good, and we’re all here with you.

So there’s every reason this morning for optimism because there are so many of us ready to say: enough, we’re done with this. The serious fault lines of privilege aren’t between one online writer and another, one educated blogger and another. They’re the daylight between all of us and the people whose lives are being trashed by the global economy, by environmental damage, by incarceration, by the staggering cruelty of refugee camps, by preventable disease, by both underemployment and overwork, and by the sense that there is nothing the powerful are prepared to do about this beyond snarking at each other for the win.

And the repeal of our Racial Discrimination Act is now actively in the public consultation phase. Australian readers, you can write in and say what you think.

For Leon Fuller

With students having increasingly busy lives, it is not always possible for them to come to campus or have the kind of intellectual life that was traditionally associated with university campuses. That is the reality of the modern university student but is only just becoming the reality of the modern university campus.

The Campus is Dead: Long Live The Campus

Indeed, our modern culture tends to regard trees as consumables, or ornaments that we can move or remove at will.

Do Trees Have Rights“?

In its series on the future of the university campus this week, The Conversation visualises the opposite of online learning as some kind of vanishing Hogwarts, illustrated very conventionally: a picture of one of Australia’s faux classical universities with its daft and out-of-place architecture, and its big spreading tree.

The older buildings at the university where I work look like a chain of multi-story carparks, and the new buildings like a particularly shiny technology theme park: corporate acronyms and industry partnerships monumentalised in brushed concrete and steel. And yet in survey after survey, when we’re asked about the three best things about where we are, we all chorus: the physical environment.

It’s true. The campus is something I find myself really missing in this year of time away from work.  Walking from modestly ugly building to really ugly building, I’ve been continually startled and impressed by the delicacy and detail of the ground-level planting, the just-rightness of the winding paths, the thoughtful interaction of seating, shade, water and seclusion that creates quiet places to think.

And above it all, the trees. We even have a tree walk, because the trees that provide all this shade (and natural cooling to many of the buildings) are locally appropriate species with little labels at their bases so that we can learn something as we walk about. Because of these trees, we also have birdlife, that birdwatchers come specifically to see. And as we rush from meeting to meeting, most of us will pause to watch a bower bird in the act of adjusting or decorating its bower; impatient and time-hungry drivers late for something or other will slow down as moorhens cross the road from one pond to the next.

This must drive the Vice Chancellor mad. Our green and growing environment, that actively produces all this contemplative dawdling, isn’t going to drive up our international reputation, because you have to be standing here to see it. But in thinking about why we don’t celebrate it more than we do, I wonder if this isn’t part of a larger problem that affects higher education more widely: that our performance metrics and ranking instruments are really bad at recognising indirect contribution.

We don’t promote people who get committee work done, straightforwardly and properly, so that universities operate as efficiently as they can. We don’t give awards to professional audit, governance or IT support teams whose very job it is to keep things ticking over so smoothly that we don’t know they exist. We don’t thank the academic colleagues who listen and ask questions and buy coffee when someone else’s article or grant proposal gets stuck in the delivery canal. And we really disrespect the army of casuals who make research output possible by showing up to teach in place of the hipster research superstars marketed to students on billboards and websites.

In the 1970s, feminist economists and historians argued that the contribution of unwaged women’s work in the home needed to be calculated into GDP. The case is straightforward: for wage earners to be out of the home, other work has to be done in raising families in safety, managing the home itself, and supporting the other institutions in the economy, including education. The pattern of workforce participation has changed since then, so that many of these services are now themselves outsourced to low-waged labour, but this has only reinforced the point: there is this everyday stuff that has to get done so that economic participation can focus on reproducing the future conditions for work.

And this all takes real human time, so it really matters that the undistinguished, uncelebrated domestic service of workforce participation is properly reckoned when we’re congratulating ourselves on productivity.

As it happens, the trees on our beautiful campus are also an indirect contribution from the seventies. They’re the living design and vision of Leon Fuller, a local curator of native species, who came to a “bare, featureless landscape” in 1975 and created what we have now from seeds he gathered himself:

Mr Fuller was appointed landscape supervisor at UOW in 1975, with the task of transforming the campus – a massive brief given the region’s diversity of vegetation. “The overall vegetation of the Illawarra is distinctive and trying to bring it down to one or two plant communities is not easy,” he said. “There’s a number of plant communities; there’s Illawarra grassy woodland, and Illawarra subtropical rainforest on the escarpment.”

As part of his UOW quest, Mr Fuller and his team made countless trips into the Illawarra escarpment bushland, identifying trees and gathering seeds that were propagated and planted on campus. Thousands of trees were planted in the six years he was with the university, a trend that continued after his departure.

Illawarra Mercury, “Field Guide to the Landscape We Love

Leon Fulller’s thinking ahead, so carefully, about environmental integrity is exactly the kind of invisible work that’s in trouble in Australia at the moment.  Our current Prime Minister seems genuinely to believe that logging is a kind of nature conservancy, a way of thinking about trees purely for their potential to become productive timber or to make way for mining or gas interests. And in the same way, the efficiency calculations tearing up our economy—including our public institutions—are making it thinkable that humans defined as unproductive can be pruned and uprooted, as if for their own benefit. Because, you know, dead wood.

But like any large organisation, a university is complex living ecosystem of human care and reflection. Some of this is inefficient by technical standards; because technical standards are very limited in their range. These standards are not yet developed to match the complexity of human interaction: the long term impact that we have on one another’s thinking, the way we sharpen one another’s skills, or even just the way we sustain each other’s confidence to go on. They really can’t see the trees for the timber they might produce.

And as the recruitment culture in universities speeds up because as Gianpiero Petriglieri smartly points out, we currently applaud the career trajectory of leaders who are globally mobile, there’s a risk of failing to understand that local history is what grounds a university in the place where it is, where its seeds were harvested and planted:

Nowadays, we move so often that we barely notice our trees, let alone knowing their histories and having our own stories intertwine with theirs. Our only chance to live with a mature tree may be if someone else planted one decades ago—and all the intervening landowners cared enough about that tree to allow it to continue to live and thrive.

Here’s to you, Leon Fuller.