The peacock and the fish

Lava lamp

That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern. It raises questions about our ways of education and about the values that guide our conduct.

Solomon Asch, Opinions & Social Pressure, 1955

1.

Lava lamp
Lava Lamp, Ged Carroll 2011, CC BY 2.0

It’s been a week of sitting and thinking as the presentations slide by. University strategic planning is a bit like a lava lamp: ideas rise and fall gently, and come back up again later in much the same shape. We’re mesmerised by incremental change on slow repeat.

So, full of coffee and fancy catering, we stew over trends and brainstorm ideas for budget repair. Corporate euphemism bingo is an easy mark. People who haven’t taught for a while say “at the coalface” a bit awkwardly. Students are represented only in charts. Percentages make us feel sciency, and tempt us to compare things of incomparable size. The data is so convincing, the narrative so authoritative, it feels naive to ask whether the problems we’re facing might be messier, less obvious, in their causes.

While I was looking away, I noticed Mike Caulfield on Twitter pointing out that data can only see what it has been trained to see. If an algorithmic image search has never seen an emotional support peacock being taken through an airport before, then “fish” is a good enough guess. And if an algorithm tells us that a peacock is a fish, the natural human response is to sort of see it that way too. We’re trained sympathisers.

Google image search misidentifies this peacock as a “fish” which I find fascinating (because I can sort of see it!) pic.twitter.com/2y6fXrjOfW

Solomon Asch’s famous conformity tests of the 1950s demonstrated that an individual can sometimes be persuaded that the evidence of their own eyes is wrong, if the majority claim to see things differently. Asch experimented on small groups of male students, planting an individual among actors who had been coached to provide the wrong answer to an obvious test of size. The unknowing individual gave the wrong answer less than 1% of the time when left alone to think, and when allowed to report privately; under the pressure of a consensus on the wrong answer, and having to report publicly, he yielded to the group 38% of the time.

This is the part that the history has chosen to remember, and that crops up in the business and leadership literature. But in his post-test interviews, Asch documented the more nuanced accounts of what participants thought they were doing, while they were trying to work out what they were going through. Humans are social: attending to contradictory reporting of phenomena we expect to experience commonly is part of an intricate ethical negotiation over the way we hope to get along together. It’s critical to understand this, because it hits us hard when it fails.

Ronald Friend and his colleagues map out the erroneous reproduction of the conformity thesis in social psychology literature from 1953 to 1984, and point their readers instead to Asch’s underlying view of the way in which we all encounter the world as different members of a shared social field. Asch believed that we start with an expectation that others see the world as we do. That’s the starting point for responding to statements that provide evidence of a contradictory position; we accept that someone else, standing where they stand, might see things differently, while acknowledging the epistemological trouble that this brings us. To Asch, consensus isn’t simply a practice of yielding to untruths, but of placing confidence carefully in the possibility of sufficient cohesion—but this is exactly how the risk of conformity is introduced. So in the social field, we balance the need for productive consensus with the need to call out data that we know to be misleading.

And as Mike knows, this balance is now radically undone. He’s driving a key initiative in the US to raise understanding of digital polarisation; he really thinks about algorithmic judgment as a new political formation, one that we’ve underestimated. We’re not alone together in Asch’s social field any more: we’ve outsourced the work of seeing the peacock from the fish to non-human actors, even though as humans we will go on trying to make sense of their inputs using the same social efforts that Asch observed. We will learn to sort of see it.

And so the more we squint and try to see students as enrolment data points on charts, the more they start to look like fish too.

2

While we’re watching the charts glide by, my daughter is moving to another city to become someone else’s commencing enrolment data point. Is it worth the debt she’ll take on? And what responsibilities do universities have for recruitment to debt using the vision of employability, when we have so little influence on the deterioration of the labour market?

The future of work we’re selling to students like her looks a bit like the new Amazon campus in Seattle, all natural light and four storey plant walls and treehouse pod meeting points. We hope our graduates will drift among the unassigned workspaces being cherished for their creativity and problem-solving energy and critical thinking skills. We tell them that the jobs we’re preparing them for haven’t been invented yet, or at least that all the jobs we’re doing now have been so transformed by technology that they might as well be new. (For a deep look at the history of this ruse, read Benjamin Doxtdator’s marvellous Field Guide to “Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet”.)

But the social impact of the future of work is more complicated. This week tech media has discovered Amazon’s 2016 patent application for a tracker to record worker hand movements, reducing the need for local human supervision.

Ultrasonic tracking of a worker’s hands may be used to monitor performance of assigned tasks. … The management module monitors performance of an assigned task based on the identified inventory bin.

This is undeniably futuristic too. And as every tech journalist points out, it doesn’t matter whether there are active plans to use this device this year, or even this decade. It’s just a patent.

But this is our culture making sense of something: this is group human consensus forming around what’s acceptable in disruptive innovation. For Amazon’s corporate employees to enjoy the benefits of 40,000 different plants from 400 species that are specially chosen to be comfortable at temperatures comfortable to humans, its warehouse operations need to be optimised to the point of cruelty. And so there would have been corporate level college graduates involved in every step of this awful thing, from vision to design to patent preparation and submission, apparently seeing black as white at every step, apparently not speaking up.

So we come back to the real value of what we do. As Alex Usher points out, the debate over the economic value of education pivots on whether it improves skills and has the potential to raise productivity; or whether it’s a signals game, in which case benefit is primarily private. Universities need to stop hovering on this one. We need to stop carrying on about employability, and take a wider view.

Sure, we need to know what college degree will help this year’s 18 year olds survive for the next 40 years in a future where work is being transformed so aggressively.  But let’s set a more ambitious strategic goal for ourselves. The role our graduates play in shaping this future can’t be confined to whether they survive and what they earn. Our real future lies where it always has: in what our graduates will do to build a socially just future for themselves and others.

So what kind of strategic courage can we embed in our planning now, and what values should guide our conduct, to make this more likely?

Subject outline

Above their heads, whether the visitors are sleeping, dreaming or making love, the laws keep watch.

Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality

Heather Paul, ‘Dead Body Outline’, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It’s that time of year when the deadline rears up for next year’s syllabus. Where I am, we call this a “subject outline”, and I’m momentarily stuck on all the ways we could take this. Who is the subject outlined here?  Whose subjectivity are we trying to confine?

There’s a template, of course. It’s there to assure compliance with codes of practice and national standards for quality in higher education. The template fixes the parts that have ridden the updraft of committee approval right the way to the top: descriptions, assessment tasks, subject learning outcomes mapped to course learning outcomes mapped to the appropriate level in the Australian Quality Framework. The very few sections that are open to change have been highlighted in yellow; and the rest is fixed.

It’s easy to chafe at it. The wording is, as someone said to me last week, “uncivil”. I’m sure it’s a singalong in the policy divisions, but to the rest of us the tone is one of deficit and threat. Its small aggressions are couched in the passive voice; it speaks of students in the third party as though they’re bystanders to the whole process; and the vocabulary is frankly unreasonable for anyone struggling with English. “Pursuant”? Really?

But at a busy time of year it’s also a very fair effort to speed up a process that requires every outline to be signed off. There isn’t time to read them all, now that they’re all so long. So there are about about ten closely typed pages worth of quality assured policy words that are exactly the same in every one. In fact, there’s a whole section covering nineteen separate policies and guidelines.

No one can say they weren’t told.

Thanks to this bulking up, we no longer print outlines to hand out to students in the first week of class, torching whole forests in the process. Our cunning plan is to upload each one separately as a 20 page PDF to a different subject specific LMS site—thus doubly missing the point of the internet as a place where information can be managed centrally, and accessed conveniently.

And the result is exactly as you’d expect. It’s not just that students don’t download them, let alone scroll through them. Our method of distributing them is actively training students not to read them. Compliance is satisfied by their having been written, approved and made technically findable; for anyone to read them is a perversion of their unreadable form.

2

In Of Hospitality, Derrida has things to say about the prospect of achieving unconditional hospitality in a world in which the encounters between self and stranger are already managed by hospitality’s conditional laws. He makes use of Les lois de l’hospitalite (1965) by French philosopher and de Sade translator Pierre Klossowki. This story involves house rules handwritten and hung under glass over the bed in the guest room of a home that anticipates a stranger who might—who would be expected to—substitute himself for the host in the most intimate way. (It’s not for the faint-hearted; Tracy McNulty has more details about the story in her 2005 essay ‘Hospitality after the Death of God‘.)

What matters to Derrida is the placing of these laws of hospitality. Because of where this manifesto is located, both hung above the bed in the story, and separately printed at the front of the book, “one ought to be unable not to make acquaintance with it, and yet one can always omit to read it.”

This feels familiar.

So if the laws of hospitality represent an inevitable failure of communication, where do they succeed? To Klossowski, and perhaps Derrida, they succeed transactionally by being written, not read; they work to codify the transformation of strangers into visitors. A bit like the Innkeepers Act that manages the legal transformation of travellers into guests for the purposes of staying in a pub, the laws of hospitality outline a space for the visitor to occupy. But precisely by accepting the invitation to sleep in the guest bed, the subjects of these handwritten laws also can’t comfortably remind themselves what’s on offer, or what’s prohibited, because the laws are literally hanging over their heads.

Inevitable and inaccessible, intangible, these “handwritten pages” are placed above the bed, like the law, certainly, but as threatening as an epic above your head, in this place where the guest rests, but also where he won’t have been able, where he wouldn’t have been able, where he won’t have had to fail to read the texts of a law of which no one is deemed ignorant.

It’s wordplay, for sure. But it’s also apt. It’s how we try to regulate our relationship with all the imagined strangers in our futures, whether through university syllabi, software terms and conditions, or border protection: the laws that are placed where you can see them but may avoid reading them outline the shape of a stranger to come who can only be anticipated in the most generic way.

3.

What Derrida lays out here is that even if this comes from a playful source, a libidinous story, it’s a game of the highest stakes. The rules of hospitality protect themselves by limiting the risk that we pose to each other in a classroom, at a border, in the street. In education, they codify the transaction we most need to understand, which is the transformation of stranger into student through the act of paying money (or taking on debt) in order to submit to being taught.

If we want to do this better, and write expressions of welcome and inclusion that students will actually read, what should we say?

Earlier this year, I heard Sara Goldrick-Rab speak about our failure to acknowledge the real living and working conditions of college students. Her focus on food and housing insecurity is framed by this exact moment where I’ve become stuck:

I thought the syllabus was finally finished, having just added the series of requisite College of Education policies (on things like plagiarism, attendance, etc.), when suddenly I realize that something was missing. And then I began crafting a statement on basic needs security, appending it to the set of policies. This was a first for me, but it felt necessary and internally consistent with the course. Here’s what it says:

Any student who faces challenges securing their food or housing and believes this may affect their performance in the course is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

This has cheered me up quite a bit. The rules and policies are still there—Sara’s not pitching for Derridean unconditionality, and honestly, I’m not either. But together with Derrida, today she has really helped me think through the perverse unreadability of our usual outlines as not so much a failure to communicate, but as a successful covering of the transactional cost of college.

By exposing the possibility of students experiencing food or housing insecurity, Sara opens up a new and more respectful conversation about this cost, and about all the things that students have to balance in their lives. She imagines not just students in general but “any student”, whoever they are, and she redesigns her syllabus for a more generous pedagogy in doing so. She signals that she acknowledges and respects their identity, and she makes room for their agency (“if you are comfortable in doing so”).

In writing my own outline as an educator—which is really all this blog has ever been about—I realise I want to think much more carefully about pedagogy as a practice of compassionate hospitality. I want there to be a way of teaching that owes policy its due but also holds a space between the conditional and the unconditional. It’s a pedagogy that’s tentative, optimistic and governed by care; and it’s constituted in listening to all the strangers-as-students whose vulnerabilities might be shared with us if they are comfortable in doing so, but aren’t ours to outline.

A post for Kris Christou.

Content, it’s us

I’m starting to believe, more and more, that given THE INTERNETS, content should be something that gets created BY a course not BEFORE it.

Dave Cormier,  ‘Content is a print concept‘, June 2016

So the narrative course ended, and while students are writing about it, I’m writing to thank two people who have shaped the way that I approach things.

First of all, my edtech mentor Jonathan Rees. No, really.

Last year, Jonathan wrote a short staypiece about his digital lightbulb moment at the Digital Pedagogy Lab summer institute, that led to this:

I’ve been using Slack in my hybrid Introduction to Digital History class for three weeks now. The class is centered on group projects and the Slacking has already begun.  … There is just something so darned friendly about this set-up that I think it promotes communication. Learning is occurring (including learning how to use Slack) and I’m not at the center of it at all.

I’d been exposed to Slack only in conference organising. It did seem a friendly environment for banter and backchannel, but I couldn’t think what else to do with it. Jonathan urged me to reconsider, emailed me to explain his reasoning, and invited me into his course Slack. He’s outspoken about the hot mess that edtech has become, he’s scrupulous about good history teaching, and you can see how he’s pulling it all together here. So I filed it away under #thinking.

Then this semester, the remarkable students who signed on to think about critical narrative professionalism with me said: oh hey, what about Slack? I said: mumble, mumble, banter, GIFs, backchannel, can’t we just tweet and blog like old times, or words like that. So they set it up anyway, invited me in, and turned me into the person whose skates suddenly point in the right direction..

Here are the reasons Slack has worked for me, with these students, in this context.

First, they’ve owned it, and Slack makes this easy. Anyone can set it up, anyone can create channels or private conversations. This means the group can easily decide how to handle chit-chat, where to keep critical information, how to bundle things so they don’t get lost. There are spaces to vent, and spaces to think, and spaces to deal with admin.

Second, Slack handles sharing and finding content particularly well. URLs unfurl like tiny flags to show you what you’ll see if you follow the link; files behave as they should; everything does what you want it to. I finally started using IFTTT properly and now when I save something relevant from Twitter into Bottomless Bucket Pocket it skips on to Slack where it sits in the right spot, sending a notification to let everyone know it’s there.

Which leads to the third thing. The app works. Notifications work. Everything works across devices. So provided everyone takes the time to get themselves sorted out at the start (this bit is important, as not all students will know to do this), Slack resolves the increasingly messy issues involved in using Twitter as a course communication channel. It saves us from the great leap backwards of using the LMS, the internal student messaging system or email—all of which are awful—to communicate. And it does all this without being Facebook.

But the real gain has been in pedagogy, particularly in relation to content. I’ve argued against the curriculum-as-bookclub model of weekly readings before:

The capacity to assign the right sort of readings turns out to be a habitual signal of academic expertise, one that we don’t even notice ourselves reinforcing. I know there’s a risk of disingenuous countersignalling in choosing to avoid this when I teach. But for me the alternative is riskier: that we focus our entire teaching strategy on replicating our own expertise in the minds of others, and we close off the possibility that learners may engage more effectively by finding their own resources to share and then seeing how others respond.

I invited students to work together to thicken up the ideas around which this course has coalesced: whether Michael White’s work in narrative therapy can extend to professional self development. Thanks to training from Maggie Carey at Narrative Practices Adelaide, I’m using White’s models for narrative conversations to explore ways of thinking about decision-making and personal agency in the junk labour market. This means that the relevant literature is all over the shop: social work, family therapy, psychology, nursing, theatre, organisational communication.

After some workshop exercises to introduce Michael White’s work, I asked students to find three credible sources on narrative to use in a short piece of writing. Fairly organically, and easily supported by Slack, they pooled what they found, creating a small and diverse collection they could all use. They found things I wouldn’t have chosen, and things I didn’t know about. They repurposed things that were familiar to me, and brought people who matter to me —like Elan Morgan—right into the room.

Road sign saying Synergy
Synergy, San Francisco, 2015. photo credit: Kate Bowles

And then they shared their writing, creating a new collaborative practice that directly addressed the way we treat student writing as the waste product of assessment. 

I think Jonathan’s right: there’s something about this environment that encourages agency, and that’s the basis for its promotion of communication. Not only did Slack encourage participants to lend each other found content from the start, but as writers and thinkers they became resources to each other, and to me. I cannot look back from this moment and say that anything I’ve been involved in previously has been more effective than this.

Which brings me to the second overdue thank you, to Dave Cormier. In 2008, Dave put forward ideas about community as curriculum that remain at the heart of how I work:

Suggesting that a distributed negotiation of knowledge can allow a community of people to legitimize the work they are doing among themselves and for each member of the group, the rhizomatic model dispenses with the need for external validation of knowledge, either by an expert or by a constructed curriculum. Knowledge can again be judged by the old standards of “I can” and “I recognize.” If a given bit of information is recognized as useful to the community or proves itself able to do something, it can be counted as knowledge. The community, then, has the power to create knowledge within a given context and leave that knowledge as a new node connected to the rest of the network.

I’m neither persuaded nor antagonised by the rhizome metaphor that became the more well-known consequence of this, but I believe in community. Like Dave, I think that a course is something continuously remade by the people who come along. This year’s narrative professionalism course wasn’t the same as last year’s, and next year’s will be different again. Each time, I have been profoundly changed in my own thinking by what students have done, and I’ve been really honoured to share this journey with a teaching colleague who feels as I do.

At the institution level, the course isn’t successful. It’s still new and small. Nothing much meets the test of our internal audit processes, and nothing we did is visible to our analytics systems. No content has been accessed, no online lecture watched, no quiz attempted, no forum participated in. But stories have been exchanged, interviews have been shared, guests have come in and talked to us about their values and their lives, and they’ve asked to come back because they were so surprised by what came up for them too. (If you’re following the work of Michael White, you’ll recognise the idea of the pivotal moment here.) I believe it’s helped the group develop a more confident sense of how to move forward to the kinds of work that will work for them, but I’m not here to make them more employable, or claim credit for what they go on to do. That’s on them.

So this is a thank you story. But it’s also a story about the everyday nature of artisanal change in universities—slow, handmade, sometimes bumpy looking, always worth trying again—that I want to advocate for whenever the options put to us belong in car commercials. Innovation isn’t always about technology, efficiency, speed, scale; remediation isn’t always about targeted interventions. Far more often, change emerges in small experiments that we try with our own hands, encouraged by colleagues near and far. And at its most radically disruptive—of every business and audit model—change becomes visible in the content we make together uniquely, transiently and compassionately, in that passing moment in our lives.

Thank you to Courtney, Paul, Angus, Olivia, Oliver, Liz (and Will), Trent, KK, Primrose, Paris, Amy, Charlotte and Michaela, Jonathan, Dave, Elan, Sue, and above all to Maggie Carey.