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


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!)

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.


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?

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.

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?

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.

On personality

A reply to Martin Weller

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

Martin Weller,  ‘The role of personality in education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And another:

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

And yet another:

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

So? And this is a problem why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With our own meaning

I met for the first time the essential questions of my own mortality … None of us have 300 years. The terror that I conquered in those three weeks left me with a determination and freedom to speak as I needed, and to enjoy and live my life as I needed to for my own meaning.

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals

Short version: it’s about this.

Please donate.

Long version

Last week was national Go Home on Time Day, and for me, the anniversary of all this. After a year of writing about academic overwork—why we do it, and what it costs us in human terms—I spent the day at the NTEU Insecure Work conference in Hobart, learning about makes these personal choices part of a larger system in which, as a colleague said to me a couple of days ago, labour itself is broken.

To nudge overworking academics into going home on time, the NTEU put out straightforward and sobering resources, including the astounding fact that “Australian workers donate $110 billion unpaid overtime to their employers.” I’m not sure how we manage to do this, given that a recent UK study showed their overall unpaid overtime value to be a trifling £640 million, but the general point is clear: the most developed economies run on a chronic habit of overwork for some that’s chained to a chronic problem of underemployment and underemployment for many, that together leave millions locked out of the benefits of having a developed economy at all.

UK reports are now consistently showing that the problem of overwork is being driven by the “culture of extra hours” of workplace managers who lead us from the front in using their early mornings, late evenings and weekends working and communicating with their staff, continuously promoting to the entire workforce a powerful lesson about what it takes to flourish in this culture:

Almost half of UK managers work an extra day of unpaid overtime per week, a study into working practices has suggested. … Around 13% of managers work two days unpaid overtime per week, the Institute of Leadership and Management said.

To say that academics can relate to this pattern of work is to enter the terrain of bears, woods and shit. It’s so obvious that we hardly know where to begin in thinking about it. Although if you listen to any group of academics talking about their own experience of overwork, you’ll still hear from people who think it’s about the privilege of flexible working lives, the ability to work when and where we want, to get on with doing what we love at all hours of the day and night.

This packaging of system failure as personal privilege is precisely how we cooperate in ensuring that the unpaid overtime never gets back on the balance sheet, never amounts to business intelligence that not enough people are being hired to do the work the organisation wants done. Your day of unpaid overtime might feel like the only strategy you have, the only way to survive, the only hope of future promotion or the protection of those around you—and it actually might be all of those things—but it’s also the sound of someone else’s job not being created, not even being reckoned with in the budget and the strategic plan and the audit of the sustainability of the organisation where you work.

And universities are leading whole communities in this way of living because when we do this, we also send this message to our students and our kids and our friends and our neighbours that secure employment now naturally involves relinquishing the political solidarity it would take to do what we came here to do, and that we do well, within the compensated hours on our contracts. This is also how we find ourselves without even the time to listen to one another in ways that would make our work more effective and durable, because every day we’re being chased by deadline after deadline, and our whole thinking lives are galvanised by interruption and crisis: because the system as a whole has said yes to too many things at once.

So the lesson that I’ve learned in my year away from all this finally sank in this week. A visitor came to our campus, and a small group of us sat down together to reflect on the questions about the fragmentation and repair of academic life and practice that he had raised for us by sharing a short piece of his work in progress on networked participatory scholarship. We didn’t come out with a grant proposal, a research paper, or an outcome of any kind. This work would show up on any reckoning of our productivity as a little gap, an inefficiency, a nothing.

But I came out smarter, better at listening.

And we also came out to a world of hurt, like people who were on a plane when the big news broke. As we sat in the room, #FergusonDecision. The immense, desperate spectacle of anger in the US on a scale that Australians find hard to imagine. And from Australia, the anger in return of all those who live here under the shadow of our own reckoning that some lives matter less than others: that some people get to participate in our economy and enjoy its prosperity and raise their kids in freedom, health and safety, and some people don’t, and that’s just the way things are.

So I got snagged there for a moment there on the problem of how to sustain practices of hope that will lead to change when the evidence seems to pile up on all sides that we have already broken the environment we live in and that the best we can hope for is to pull off surreptitious gestures of resistance or appreciation, before going to lie down in a darkened room and wait for the finish.

Then some things happened. That is, things didn’t happen differently, but having taken time to think, I noticed things happening that add up for me to a way of looking differently at this mess we’re in.

The Koori Woman wrote this about the kindness of strangers. The Smart Casual—the most kick-ass colleague you could ever hope for—came flying out of the corner where higher education had her boxed in and wrote this astonishing piece about grief. My daughter Clementine wrote this about what she has learned from her dad. Australian journalists Mark Colvin and Julia Baird shared this conversation about resilience, love and survival in the face of life. A bunch of famous Australians got together and made a thing that—even if celebrity singalongs aren’t your cup of tea—at the very least shows a group of influential humans right in the act of saying that the way things are won’t do for them any more.

And while thinking about tipping points, I came out to an email from the organisers of a health campaign that really matters to me, telling us that the tipping point has been reached, and they’ll be converting the pledges to donations. This is great news. But they have a way to go, so they are reaching out for the practical support of anyone who can give a small donation in the final 13 days of their campaign.

I support this campaign because these women, in the context of their own community and in line with their own cultural meaning, will get this done. It’s their idea, their cause, their health, their plan, and their determination to change the way things are. The donation process is really, really simple and quick. Please find time to read about them, please pass on this message, and please consider giving them a donation if you’re in a position to.

Dianne Biritjalawuy and the women of Hope for Health, I really hope this helps.

Down on main street

“We think it’s fair to ask the student to pay $3 extra a week to get the chance to earn a million dollars more over a lifetime than Australians without a university qualification. … Mr and Mrs Mainstreet are paying almost 60 per cent of the tuition fees of a uni student and they are also paying back the loan at the 10-year government bond rate of 3.8 per cent, whereas the student’s loan is indexed at CPI, currently 2.5 per cent,” Mr Pyne said.

Uni loan changes ‘cost $5 a week’, June 4

Since Christopher Pyne made fairness in higher education the surprise water cooler topic in this budget, there have been strongly negative reactions to the hiking up of student debt from all over the place. The government is now campaigning hard on the idea that fee reforms are both essential and inconsequential: the impact is tiny, the freedom is vast, and the overall costs are just as likely to go down as up (this is what the Minister calls the magic of the market, so do clap if you believe him.)

There are some practical problems with trying to pass off education debt as similar to other kinds of reputable middle-class debt, like mortgages or business loans, rather than, say, experience debts or gambling debts. Education might pay dividends in the end, but while it doesn’t, there’s no asset: no car to repossess, no house to put on the market, no shares to sell. Graduates who don’t go on to the full-time career for which they trained not only don’t see the promised premium earnings, but they can’t get a refund or put their degree on eBay. They’ve had the experience, and their numbers haven’t come up. Now they’re in a hole.

Behind this is the more important problem that there are no standards of responsible lending applied to education debt. If you’re offered a university place, you’re entitled to go into debt to complete your degree, just like that. It’s a no-doc loan of the worst kind, because it has to be — your future capacity to repay is itself the asset you’re going to debt to acquire. So no one’s responsible for even minimal risk evaluation of prospective undergraduates and their families. To put it brutally, universities can recruit underprepared students to make up numbers and protect their revenue stream, and at the moment have no real skin in the game when it comes to graduate employment.

Until now, the risk has more or less worked for Australian students even in non-vocational degrees because interest rates have been low, and it hasn’t worked for the lender because the incentive to repay is correspondingly weak. Students who have been able to pay fees up front have been better off, but not to a life-changing degree. But still, graduates have got stuck below the repayment threshold for a wide range of reasons, or have nicked off overseas, or have died with their debts unpaid. All of this amounts to a prediction that Australia could have $13bn in doubtful debt by 2017—a hill of beans compared to the trillion dollar toxic debt swamp in the US, but significant for a small education market like ours.

So it’s obvious why the government wants to adjust repayment terms: both to get more money back from those who repay tidily, and to use the threat of compounding interest to round up those who aren’t repaying much at all. It should be a low risk strategy: as owners of the national education debt pipeline, the government clearly expected to be able to tweak both interest rates and repayment thresholds while still offering a better deal than any commercial lender, and by these means to turn education debt into a more attractive asset.

But this is proving a hard sell. Having spent a lot of time at home this year, I’ve come to think that if Christopher Pyne had watched more daytime TV, he would understand why we’re not jumping at the idea. It’s because we know more than he realises about disreputable debt: last resort borrowing, predatory lending, and household debt that’s being juggled across multiple credit accounts. Australians at home are hassled all day long by TV commercials focused on compounding debts owed to intimidating lenders, and financial underpreparedness for illness, accident and death. This is what’s in the basement of our national consumer confidence: a realistic sense of how quickly debt picks off the most vulnerable in this prosperous economy.

Like someone spruiking a raw food juicer or a funeral plan to this frightened audience, the Minister has to work hard to convince us to turn a blind eye to what’s lurking in the shadows of deferred payment, and to focus instead on the transformative power of the product. It’s why he’s making his case at the highest perch of generalisation, glossing over earning disparity between male and female graduates, graduates in different disciplines, graduates living in different parts of the country (especially in the country parts of the country), graduates from different social backgrounds, and with variable levels of educational preparedness before they start their degrees. He’s also hoping we don’t understand the impact of part-time and precarious employment, regional employment, misadventure, illness, disability, parenting, or the fact that the economy itself is slowing down.

In fact, everything that makes a real difference to graduate lifetime earnings is invisible from the Minister’s penthouse, leaving us with the simplification repeated in speech after speech after speech: graduates will make 75% more than non-graduates, and in case we’re not sure what that is, why—it’s a million dollars.


Or not. Just as with cancer mortality modelling—about which I know a thing or two—the aggregates, multipliers and generalisations across a demographic slice that make up this million dollars are all bundled inside speculation about external variables, and can’t possibly predict what will happen with the accuracy required to judge the personal risk of going into long-term debt. When someone says “X life expectancy” or “Y lifetime earnings”, they’re pretty much saying “83% percent reduction in wrinkles”—it’s really up to you what you make of this as you stand at the counter with the wrinkle cream in your hand.

And yet the Minister’s gone on repeating his million dollar pitch long after even the friendliest economist has quietly pointed out that the facts are more complicated. Because this is exactly what you have when you don’t have responsible lending guidelines: a cheap and shouty sales pitch involving lifetime guarantees, a sprinkle of FOMO, and a miracle product. And he’s energetically trying to nudge Australian taxpayers into resenting university graduates, despite the evidence that Australian graduates themselves go on to become Australian taxpayers to a very significant degree.

Yesterday Stephen Matchett, in his excellent daily newsletter on Australian higher education, suggested that student debt has become the equivalent of the $7 Medicare co-payment to health reform: it’s the pill that the electorate just won’t swallow, no matter how it’s sugar coated. I think he’s right. What’s taken us all by surprise in this budget is that across every portfolio, with remarkable tin-ear consistency, the stakes have been pushed too high, the reasoning has been too lazy and too divisive, and the reactions of Australians to the central topic of budget fairness have been really widely misjudged.

Oh, and also, the rustling up of patronising stereotypes to explain it all is really wearing thin.

History’s gifts

My painting, my Dreamtime, nobody own it for me, nobody can stop this history painting. When I die, young people gotta take it over. That’s why all over the world we meet up, talk together and give history to one another.


It’s late at night in the first week of a Coursera/Duke MOOC on the future of higher education, and we’re rattling through a remake of Robert Darnton’s history of four great information ages. This big history marches forward with such conviction and pace that we leap over most of the 20th century in a single bound, from mechanised printing straight to the global internet. You might think the business histories of photography, radio, film and television would be models for the kind of education we have now, but it looks like literary history has it covered. OK, then.

Cathy Davidson calls this a “purposive and activist history”, learning from the past in order to change the future. I’m not sure who the “we” of this history might be, but I’m hearing “we” a lot. Sometimes it points at the people who share the political or industrial history of the US, or the slightly wider developed world; and sometimes we are all accommodated inside history’s generous marquee, because, you know, diversity.

And then suddenly there he is, on screen for less than a minute: an Aboriginal man in worn military uniform, a barefoot woman wrapped in a blanket sitting on rocks behind him, and grog bottles in a basket at his feet. The video is talking about “these ancient Aboriginal tribes in Australia”, to demonstrate something about oral cultures and their capacity to remember complex stories of kinship, which will later reattach to a thought about basketball fans and their ability to remember stats. I feel a kind of panic: wait, did we just go there? And sure enough, we’re right at the heart of the terrible history of empires built for trade behind a facade of civilising pedagogy, only now “we” seem to be re-enacting exactly the encounter that I’m looking at on my laptop screen.

There’s no sign in the end credits as to what this image is or why it’s there; and a question to the forums gets no response because, you know, forums.

So I ask again on Twitter, and this time Jade Davis who I follow and respect highly for her work on digital knowledge cultures, does her own search and finds it. It’s a 19th century etching of Bungaree, an Aboriginal man who was well known in and around Sydney during the early years of the colony. The image was made by travelling colonial artist Augustus Earle, who had finally made it to Sydney in 1825 after travelling through Europe (“sketching antiquities, Moorish ruins and batteries”), touring the US and South America, and being stranded for several months in Tristan da Cunha. The image doesn’t tell us much about Bungaree, his wives or the skilful mediation he practiced between the colonial administration around him and the other clans living around Sydney at that time, because Earle couldn’t have grasped the complexity of those things. But it probably gives a reasonable account of Earle himself, and his sense of what audiences in London and Sydney wanted to know: it’s touristic, entertaining, and prurient all at once, while keeping Bungaree, his ironic costuming and his confronting household arrangements at arm’s length.

Later I asked Cathy Davidson on Twitter how this image had been chosen to illustrate a point about communication among Aboriginal people in the pre-contact period when in every visible detail, it’s about the opposite: the cultural collision between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal institutions and expectations in the colonial era. In a long forum post she reflected on the purpose of the lecture itself, and said that as the image was “offensive” without contextual explanation, it would be removed. And then when pressed a bit, she explained how the mismatch had been set up in the first place.

Because Coursera is for-profit, the licensing of images is extremely strict because one needs Creative Commons images but for a for-profit company.   This was the only image those who were adding images were able to find. We added images because it was thought that those who were non-native speakers or not familiar with my American accent would find the lectures easier if proper names were spelled out and images were used to illustrate non-familiar material.

I respect this candour. But removing the image just confirms who gets to deploy authorial entitlement here: who decides, and who is decided for. Bungaree gets patched in to illustrate the non-familiar, and then in the name of cultural sensitivity gets deleted again. And I’m still curious about the process that went through several steps without anyone noticing anything odd. Finding this image, settling for it, not feeling any need to explain it: all this feels like a kind of hubris about world culture that isn’t exclusive to MOOCs, but is certainly something about powerful institutions that MOOCs have exposed to a wider audience.

Earle’s encounter with Bungaree is a good metaphor for what’s happening as higher education becomes more entrepreneurial. Like the other colonial artists vagabonding about in the tropical south at this time, Earle was using his professional skills and social position to sell a particular account of the world back to itself, on behalf of an imperial power scrambling for land in competition with others from the global north. However he conceived of himself as an artist, his work operated within a purposive, activist project that encouraged investment in further exploration, the exploitation of new resources, and ultimately the creation of new markets. He wasn’t particularly accurate or insightful about Bungaree, but he didn’t have to be—he simply needed to frame him in this way to support a simplistic view of the diversity that would become the operating system (literally, in terms of racialised labour) of the colony itself.

Humanities scholars who join the race for global audiences using MOOCs as their platform need to ask the hardest questions about repeating the patterns of colonising pedagogy as edtech philanthropy. At the moment I can’t see how LMS-style platforms that are instructor-led could make space for the sharing of history on equal terms that would genuinely change the way global education works—although they can certainly support a limited kind of crowdsourcing of content that could be mistaken for something bolder. Nor is there evidence that the CEOs currently talking up the philanthropic and democratising potential of MOOCs want to see even a thimbleful of critique of the way prestige operates in higher education.

But I agree with Laura Czerniewicz at the University of Cape Town that simply saying no to whatever we mean by MOOCs isn’t the best step for those of us in other places. We need to work together to understand how hype around online courses accelerated the pace of innovation, and now that everyone’s calming down, we need to look at the options this has given us all for talking together across national and regional boundaries, without waiting for the powerful to lead.

Two notes

The quote at the top of this post is from the Aboriginal cultural historian and artist whose work is the subject of a beautiful short film and cultural history lesson, Too Many Captain Cooks, made in 1988.

Professor Cathy Davidson took a great deal of time and care in considering these issues from her perspective in her Coursera forum post “Race, Racisim, Representation and Alternate Timelines”.  Jade Davis, PhD candidate and Duke participant in the class to which this MOOC is attached, found the image and did the same on Twitter.  I learned a lot from their responses, and I appreciated their willingness to take this criticism seriously.

What you have when you don’t have tenure

Over the holiday period there’s been a flare-up among US higher education bloggers, that began with important questions about the miserable process of tenure-line job searches conducted at big annual conferences (do candidates really end up sitting on the bed in front of the search committee? Good Lord), and jumped from there to whether those currently tenured are doing enough to change the system that gives them their privileges. Understandably, tenured US bloggers wrote back, most substantively agreeing that university work is broken, and pointing out some of the reasons other than tenured privilege that higher education can’t afford to pay its staffing bills properly.

For those of us in other places, where neither hiring nor tenure work in the same way, it’s been like visiting someone else’s family for Christmas dinner and watching them fight. Every old thing gets raked up. Seething alliances form. Insults are defensively reexplained and stuff gets overstated. Once there’s a crowd, reactive escalation becomes its own self-sustaining energy. So then tone-policing becomes a thing, a penalty dive, in much the same way that “political correctness” was used by Australian conservatives in the 1990s: claiming to be silenced in order to silence others back.

Something that Australians would recognise is at work here: the art and tactic of sledging (which has nothing to do with snow). Sledging isn’t just there to unsettle your opponent, but to build solidarity among the team dishing it out. Sledging is a public test of team loyalty and commitment to the cause. Whose side are you on anyway? Whenever critics of sledging say that that it’s gone too far and is tipping into bullying, and indeed when it does evident harm to some of those on the receiving end, sledgers amp it up a bit while disavowing it in the same neat move. It’s just a game, and off the pitch we’re all mates.

Social media sledging in the current climate is tangling with the ways that universities (and governments) are mobilising to minimise critique from higher education workers, by widening the definition of inappropriate speech online to include anything that brings the institution or its brand into disrepute.  And to this powerful audience, some of the obvious strategies for breaking up this brawl while clawing back more money from university staffing are already on hand. So if we want to get beyond sledging and make workplaces worth applying to, really we need to try to think about these other options and familiarise ourselves with what they might mean.

First: outsourcing. Universities are generalist institutions made up of lots of little divisions that do different things, and academics are often not aware how many of these are already outsourced to specialist providers.  We could be better at sharing administrative services; even research time is able to be lent so that cross-institutional teams can function. But in teaching, the idea of outsourcing was hushed until MOOCs blew it out of a big trumpet. (The exception is LMS contracts; and even then few academics get to find out much about the vendors that they’re partnered with, because that partnership is sequestered within a specialist bit of the institution, and sometimes actively covered up with in-house support.)

So academic work itself remains the least outsourced part of the institution’s activity, and this could change. Public universities could run on outsourced online labour quite straightforwardly—other major corporations do, as do MOOCs, and many private education providers. Casualisation itself is already both outsourcing and sharing, but it’s still relatively costly compared to how cheap it could be if it was unbundled and the cheaper bits put out to tender. Of course this work then wouldn’t go to those who are currently trying to find local employment in higher education, because there will always be cheaper sources of piecework labour in other states or other countries, just as there are in other industries. So this wouldn’t create more just employment, but it would save money.

The second option is potentially more attractive to people who want to work in higher education: remove tenure and make universities like other sectors, where security of employment is based on continuation of demand for what you do, matched to your continually tested capacity to do it better than the next person.  This is exactly what life on the open market is like for car workers, basketballers, miners, IT workers, business professionals and farmers, not to mention journalists, artists, and people who make cricket caps.  Demand for what you do can change, and someone younger, fitter, taller or cheaper than you can offer a better deal to your employer.

So if you’re sitting on a CV that’s more impressive than someone currently in a tenured position, maybe this would work in your favour. And maybe the younger, fitter, taller, cheaper person would never come along to replace you either.

As it happens, this one’s also already here, because the underlying bargain also favours the employer. Many Australian universities have in their three year contract with their workforce the capacity to redeploy or retrench academics if the discipline market shifts, or technology makes a difference in very unexplained ways, and it’s no longer in the business interests of the organisation to commit to the expense of someone’s permanent salary. This is what makes the culture of continuous departmental restructure so serious. While universities shuffle their salary commitments around the disciplines to optimise their ranking performance, academics now also need to imagine remixing their expertise quickly to be something else if that’s the way the wind blows—which is to say that expertise itself has already been redefined as a barrier to flexibility.

It’s a high risk strategy for both employers and elite performers, who are bought in at the expense of an international search, and then bought out of governance and/or teaching so that they can bring in research funding. But if demand trends away from them, then they can be difficult to redeploy, because it turns out that universities are within rights to argue that a senior academic can’t simply be plonked in front of first-year undergraduate students to do generalist teachingIn a very recent judgment, the Australian Fair Work Commission has decided in favour of an Australian university that:

A category E professor is a far more expensive employee for the School than a Lecturer A or B employee. The retrenchment and redundancy provisions of the Agreement are objectively intended to allow the University to address commercial imperatives arising from changed business circumstances. A practical approach to the construction of the Agreement favours a conclusion that does not oblige the University to retain that far more expensive employee to perform work that can be, and is presently, performed by significantly less expensive casual employees in the Lecturer A or B classification. [emphasis, as they say, not in the original]

This whole judgment is painful to study. At its heart is the story of three real people fighting unsuccessfully to keep the jobs they signed up for, and a union fighting alongside them; hidden behind this are all the stories of their significantly less expensive colleagues whose terrible working conditions have become the very low-lying marker in the struggle for fair work in sustainable universities, and whose situation could yet get worse under MOOC-driven disruption and tech-supported unbundling of work.

The judgment is clear on the climate for thinking about security of academic employment in Australia; and shows how little impact we have had on assumptions about the time it takes to teach conscientiously, patiently or well, especially where students may be underprepared or poorly supported.  It differentiates between the value of contact hours based on an individual’s salary, and by these apparently reasonable means finds it appropriate to service first-year teaching at the lowest possible cost, which is precisely how casualisation is endorsed as a strategically good response to “commercial imperatives.”

So if you still really think that people who talk about structure are avoiding the struggle for fair work and turning a blind eye to humans harmed by it, or that it’s possible to separate the struggles of the academic precariat from the management of those on salary, then read this judgment closely. Because this is the court of opinion where real power is at work, and where the structure is already being redesigned.

Big thanks to Stephen Matchett (@SRMatchett) for daily higher education reporting in Australia. His Campus Morning Mail is where I first read about the judgment discussed here.